Posted by Henry Drury
The guest speaker today was our own member Dr Gordon Cheyne who delivered in his inimitable relaxed style a talk on “The Shocking History of Anaesthesia”.

To start at the end, the three fundamental requirements for a successful anaesthetic procedure are that the patient is totally asleep, totally without pain and have all muscles totally relaxed to make the surgeons task so much easier.

Your correspondent assumes the fourth unsaid but implied requirement would be that the patient wakes up in good working order and with little or no after effects.

Gordon began with on overview of anaesthesia in its various forms through the ages giving opium, alcohol and cocaine as some examples of early mind-altering substances used by people to kill the pain so to speak, and all of which were potentially addictive.  Several early experimenters in the administration of inhalational or injectable anaesthetic agents became themselves addicted to their use. 

The 1800’s saw the emergence of volatiles including ether, chloroform and nitrous oxide (laughing gas) as more effective forms of anaesthetic as their pain-killing effectiveness was observed in their use as “party drugs”.
Various practitioners such as Dr Crawford Long in 1842 used ether to assist the removal a cyst on a friend’s neck.  However he did not publicize this information until 1849.
A travelling dentist, Horace Wells demonstrated the use of nitrous oxide for dental work in 1845.  However Wells made a mistake in choosing a particularly sturdy male volunteer, and the patient suffered considerable pain. This lost the colourful Wells any support. He later became addicted to chloroform, and died in jail by cutting his femoral artery, after allegedly assaulting a prostitute with sulfuric acid.

Another dentist, William Morton, in 1846 performed the first public demonstration of diethyl ether as an anaesthetic agent for the excision of a vascular tumour from a patient neck.  Dentist’s rule, it would seem!                                                    

Discovered in 1831, the use of chloroform in anaesthesia is usually linked to James Simpson who found its efficacy as such in 1847. Its use spread quickly finding royal approval when a Dr John Snow gave it to Queen Victoria during the birth of her eighth child, Prince Leopold. “Dr Snow gave that blessed chloroform, and the effect was soothing, quieting and delightful beyond measure”.

Snow is also considered one of the fathers of modern epidemiology, in part because of his work in tracing the source of a cholera outbreak in Soho, London in 1854. His memorial is a water pump without a handle so that infected waters could not be raised to the surface.
The first surgical anaesthetic administered in the southern hemisphere is credited to William Russ Pugh who set up a practice in Launceston, Tasmania. On June 7 1847 he performed two operations as St John’s hospital Launceston, removing a tumour from a woman’s jaw and cataracts from a man under ether anaesthesia. Cutting edge use of anaesthetic for surgery in a then really remote part of the world.
Gordon concluded with some anaesthetic anecdotes from his own early medical career which described in graphic detail the removal of a placenta in one instance and the administering of an epidural anaesthetic to another woman in labour. We were left in little doubt about the trauma and excitement in a young Dr Cheyne’s early practice.

A fascinating address about a subject that sooner or later we will experience first-hand in some form or other.