We Started Studying Anesthesia After Toenail Surgery Went Horribly Wrong
Anesthesia, in every form, was a wonderful invention. It eliminated pain—awesome—and over the centuries, we discovered all kinds of these drugs, from alcohol to opium to cocaine. They temporarily removed aches and even separate from that were pretty fun to take. General anesthesia (which renders you fully unconscious) was a little more complicated and took more experimenting. We couldn't find any random foods that knocked patients out for the duration of surgery, but in the 19th century, we produced a few chemicals that did the trick.
Diethyl ether was the first general anesthetic, assisting in a tumor operation in 1842, and ether became a common anesthetic for a long time after this. It had some disadvantages, though. If the doctor lit his pipe to puff some tobacco in the middle of surgery, the ether might explode in a giant fireball. Ether also took quite a while to kick in. A second anesthetic, chloroform (originally invented as a pesticide), avoided both those problems. Chloroform does not work anywhere as fast as it does in the movies, but it works faster than ether.
During these earliest years of anesthesia, there was no such job as an "anesthesiologist." Ether and chloroform were miracle inventions, and administering them (people figured) was a simple matter of soaking a mask in fluid and then plopping it on the patient's face. No one really cared about calculating amounts or durations. This changed after an 1848 operation killed a patient.
The 15-year-old girl didn't die from the surgery. She died from the chloroform. Which would be quite unfortunate even if she were in for some serious issue that would have killed her anyway without intervention, but that was not the case. She was in the operating room to have a bit of ingrown toenail clipped, to stop it from digging into her skin.
A doctor named John Snow investigated the death after the fact, and he concluded that pouring chloroform over a tablecloth and holding it over the patient's nose is not a smart way to handle matters. He published the first study on anesthetics and became the first maester to calculate dosages for these new substances. He went on to pioneer the use of chloroform during childbirth, against objections from the Church (labor pains are God's punishment for Adam and Eve's sins, says the Eden story). Then Queen Victoria, who'd already painfully given birth seven times, requested John Snow's chloroform during her next delivery, and so the Church decided maybe painlessness wasn't such a bad idea after all.
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