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Surgery is quite possibly one of the most nerve-wracking things any human being can endure. Patients are unsure of the lasting results and they do not want to experience pain. And that is the beauty of anesthesia. As a vascular surgeon, I understand the sheer importance of anesthesia, and how much of a miracle it is to modern medicine. But where exactly did it all begin? And, more importantly, what did surgeons use before anesthesia?


What is anesthesia?

Most everyone around the world knows what anesthesia is and what it does. However, just in case, I figured I would give a very brief overview of what it is. Anesthesia, in essence, is a state of unawareness or even unconsciousness. It is a way to prevent patients from feeling pain during surgery. Anesthesia can be administered in a variety of ways.


What was used before anesthesia?

Before anesthesia was invented and utilized, the surgery room was not a friendly place to be in. There was no one true way to prevent pain during surgery back then; this resulted in a variety of methods used in order to alleviate the pain. The Incas would chew coca leaves and spit into the wounds of their patients, surgeons around the year 1800 would use extreme cold or cut off blood flow to the area of surgery in order to numb the pain. Other methods involved the patient drinking alcohol or simply biting on a stick or something hard in order to relieve the pain. In some rare cases, patients would simply be knocked out cold with a blow to the face. Unfortunately for those involved, these methods never really worked too well. Patients would still scream and feel the intense pain of whatever the surgeon was doing.


So who invented anesthesia?

For any person who has ever had surgery, you can thank a dentist named William T.G. Morton for your lack of pain. A Boston dentist, Morton had remembered his teachings of ether and how it could be used to knock somebody unconscious. Morton, eager to find a way to cure pain during surgery, purchased several bottles of ether and tested it on himself before finally using it on his patients. However, Morton wasn’t satisfied; he wanted to develop a far better method of administering ether (at the time, it was simply poured onto a rag or cloth and placed over the patient’s face). And so, he developed a method of inhaling ether, and controlling the amount administered, as to not overdose patients. This was when, in essence, anesthesiology was created.