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SRI Magazine 2016

SRI Magazine 2016

Through the wormhole

Illustration: Ernest Board [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The word “anesthesia” comes from the Greek an- (“without”) and aesthēsis (“sensation”). Before the discovery of anesthesia, having surgery was considered a terrifying prospect due to the extreme pain suffered by patients. The only strategy to numb pain was to administer alcohol, marijuana or opium to knock patients out. Some doctors even went so far as giving patients a blow to the head to render them unconscious.

The first successful public demonstration of general anesthesia was at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, on October 16, 1846. Dr. William Morton, a dentist, used inhaled diethyl ether to anesthetize Edward Gilbert Abbott, a patient with a tumour in his neck. Morton named his compound Letheon, inspired by the Lethe River from Greek mythology. According to the ancients, drinking its waters wiped out painful memories.

The operation was uncharacteristically quiet; until this point surgery was filled with the screams and moans of agonized patients. Dr. John Warren removed the tumour, with no pain to the patient, after which he reportedly declared, “Gentlemen, this is no humbug!” to awestruck onlookers. The operating theatre in which the procedure took place is now known as the Ether Dome.

This was a landmark discovery that made possible painless surgery.