Steps Towards Anesthesia

We will take a look at the history of pain and how doctors try to nullify this problem through various procedures. In particular, we will look at two pioneers in this work who are Humphrey Davy and James Simpson.

Pain has always been a pain when doctors have tried to treat patients. At one point, doctors tried opium to deaden the pain. Opium worked but would often leave the patient addicted to the drug, which was not feasible. Other doctors tried alcohol. Alcohol did not work either when the surgery or procedure began, and the patient was screaming in agony.

The next approach involved speed. The faster the doctor could cut and pull, the better. Before anesthesia, surgeries often lasted less than 5 minutes, and some doctors could cut off an entire leg in less than a minute. Naturally, complex operations were impossible under such circumstances. At this point, it was clear that whether drugs, alcohol, or speed was used, an alternative was needed to help patients with pain during medical procedures.

Humphrey Davy

Many doctors in the 18th century believed that various gases could help patients deal with pain. This lead to the development of pneumatic hospitals. This is where a young man named Humphrey Davy worked as a teenager in England. After being exposed to the power of gases as a teenager, Davy became a druggist before switching entirely to chemistry.

As a chemist, Davy worked for the physician Thomas Beddoes to develop new gases. This was both challenging and dangerous because Davey had a foolish habit of smelling his new gases rather than testing them on animals first. Such a practice as this nearly killed him several times. Eventually, he would become disable and almost blind from his careless experiments.

Despite his disregard for safety, one of Davy’s discoveries was what we call today laughing gas or nitrous oxide. Davy gave talks and lectures on his work and helped him to become somewhat famous in England.

Davy suspected that his laughing gas might be useful for surgery. This turned out to be false as laughing gas was not strong enough. However, dentists have used laughing gas for pulling teeth as the gas is a strong enough sedative for that kind of procedure. The goal of painless surgery was partially solved, but further help was needed to complete this mission.

James Simpson

The next step in this journey was taken by James Simpson, another young man from England. Growing up poor, Simpson’s family invested everything in him to go to college and medical school. Eventually, not only was Simpson a doctor, but he also was a college lecture of medicine.

Simpson heard that in the US, doctors were using ether as an anesthetic. Simpson tried this but had problems. Ether did not act the same from patient to patient, it smelled terrible and was highly explosive or flammable.

To deal with these problems, Simpson switched to chloroform. Chloroform solved all of Simpson’s problems. It was consistent in how it acted, had a sweet smell, and was not explosive or flammable. Despite this, many resisted Simpson’s innovations, and he had to work hard to persuade them.

However, the battle for an anesthetic was not over. Chloroform had other problems besides those of ether. For example, chloroform is carcinogenic. In addition, some people suffer heart attacks when they breathe it. Therefore, the journey continued in finding a cure for pain.

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