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History of Anesthesia We perform some pretty amazing and intricate surgeries today. heart bypasses, transplants and the list goes on. But we can't do any of it without anesthesia.

There were crude forms of anesthesia as early as 70 A.D. An early Roman physician named Pedanius Dioscorides used opium and mandrake. In China there was and still is acupuncture. And around the world alcohol was used but vomiting was an unworkable side effect.

Serious early work with anesthesia began with nitrous oxide and ether. An English chemist, discovered that nitrous oxide relieved his headache and dental pain, but his report went unnoticed.

Then an American dentist extracted his own teeth under nitrous oxide. But Horace Wells failed in a public demonstration because the anesthesia bag was withdrawn early and the patient felt pain. Thus it did not catch on here or in Europe.

Others tried ether. In 1842, Crawford Long was the first to remove a tumor from a patient under ether but he didn't publish the event. Four years later Henry Bigelow operated with ether in a public demonstration so by 1847, ether and chloroform were firmly established as general anesthetics.

Later, major advances include local anesthesia using cocaine which led to infiltration anesthesia such as nerve blocks, spinal and epidural anesthesia. Next came control of the airway using tubes placed in the trachea to help breathing.

By the 1920's patients were given anesthesia intravenously which helped them fall asleep quickly and pleasantly.

In the early 20th century ether and chloroform were replaced by halogenated hydrocarbons such as halothane which is still used.

Today we have this "balanced anesthesia" approach: a "cocktail" of drugs to induce loss of consciousness and eliminate pain.

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For more information…

For a brief summary of the men and their contribution to the development of anesthesia go here.

For a short description of the different types of anestehesia go here.

A timeline that summarized the major events in the development of anesthesia can be found here.

The American Society of Anesthesiologists maintain a website which has a great deal of information about anesthesia, including extensive patient education materials These include Frequently asked questions, a patient resource center, booklets and slideshows about anesthesia and its history.
For more information…

For a very readable history and general information about anesthesia go here.


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