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Review: Quacks and Anaesthesia

Set in a time of change for medicine, Quacks also embraces the introduction of pain relief. Quacks is treating anaesthesia for effect, but there are also kernels of historic trurth in this comedy.

John Sutton (Tom Basden) in Quacks, BBC2.

Firstly, their ether and chloroform is applied by a dentist, not a surgeon or general practitioner. The effects of ether and nitrous oxide (laughing gas), were well known to all medical students since the beginning of the 19th century. They were demonstrated in chemistry lessons and led to a craze of ether and laughing gas parties for recreational use.

But in 1846 an American dentist, Horace Wells, advised and led by Dr Charles Jackson as well as another dentist, applied the pain relieving powers of ether for painless tooth pulling for the first time in history. The promise of painless tooth removal promised a larger patient base for him and therefore takings, which were a major incentive to investigating the substance. After a successful demonstration at Massachusetts General in Boston on 16 Oct 1846, it eventually entered the world of surgery.

The first use in England had been at University College Hospital on 21 Dec 1846 by the surgeon Robert Liston. This, as well as the Boston application were performed with glass inhalers, which contained sponges drenched in ether. Vapours of this substance were then inhaled by the patient through the mouth.

Ether mask and bottle. Museum Collection.

As glass is very fragile and private practice highly mobile, experiments with metal inhalers followed quickly. But a scrunched up handkerchief placed over the patient’s nose and mouth was the preferred method used by the many dentists, doctors and other practitioners, who took up this new practice.

Only one man applied clinical experimentation to research the substance and its consequences, John Snow. This man was a General Practitioner from York, who had settle in London and lived in Soho. In his rooms, he had a fully equipped laboratory, and by Jan 1847 he had determined the characteristics of ether as well as how to safely apply it. He published and presented several lectures of his findings in front of the Westminster Medical Society.

After the arrival of chloroform, he switched his interest to this new substance, which he researched as thoroughly as ether before.

The apparatus used in Quacks is related to the apparatus used over the years in the 19th century. Wire masks like the one in the first episode did not come into use before the 1870s. The mask used for the Duke’s Tacheotomy is most likely modelled on Esmarch’s mask. This was introduced with a dropper bottle and tongue forceps in a leather case for military use in 1877 (seen in the photography above).

In episode 4, chloroform is used. This application for a long time was also performed via handkerchief or later on through a wire mask. A glass container with bellows attached was introduced by Richards, a pupil and friend of John Snow’s, for local anaesthesia. Here ether was used to reduce pain by cooling on the skin while vaporising.

Hopefully Quacks will not just entertain, but also inspire to find out more about anaesthesia and medical history.

Quacks BBC2.

Iris Millis is currently a museum officer at the Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret. She has previously worked for the Anaesthesia Museum and Bodyworlds. She is member of the History of Anaesthesia Society and the John Snow Society. Follow her on Twitter, @historical_iris.

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