In August 2008, as part of the building works at the museum, samples of sawdust from under the operating theatre were taken by conservator Jonna Holt. Apart from other things, she found ether residue in the area of the head end of the operating table. This ether was an old fashion form, slightly different to the purified medical ether that was soon to be introduced. This shows that this new advance was made available for St. Thomas’ Hospital’s patients very soon after its introduction.
The first operation in England using ether took place at University College Hospital, in London on 21 December 1846. The surgeon was Robert Liston, who was known as ‘the fastest knife in England’. The famous first recorded patient was a footman named Thomas Churchill, who was to undergo an amputation of the lower leg. After the operation, he reported that he had not felt any pain, which apparently caused Liston to announce to his assembled students: ‘Gentlemen, this Yankee dodge is beating mesmerism hollow’. Although none of his assistants were able to confirm this, it is the very sentence that was seen to ring in the age of anaesthesia outside of America.
The first vaporiser was based on Nooth’s Apparatus, of which the Old
Operating Theatre displays a replica model in its exhibition. The Nooth’s Carbonating Apparatus was originally designed by Dr Nooth in the late 18th century, on suggestion of Joseph Priestley, for the preparation of water mixed with carbon oxide. The bottom element held chips of marble to which diluted sulfuric acid was added. The carbonated water was then drained from a tab in the middle glass element.
The apparatus started as part of a laboratory’s equipment, but it quickly became common to find it in a better part of households, until it was eventually superseded by a new method developed by a German immigrant, Mr Schweppe.
While reports of this first use where finally published in the London Medical Gazette on 29 January 1847, word in the medical word about this new substance most likely spread via the Royal Society. Robert Liston was a member there, and it is certain that he learned about it initially through his contact with other RS fellows.
After experiments with glass vaporisers soon proved difficult to transport from case to case, smaller metal vaporisers were developed, like the Murphy’s Chloroform Inhaler, also displayed in the museum. And the open drop method, splashing ether and later chloroform on a handkerchief, led to the development of wire masks. Over these wire masks, gauze was draped, on which the anaesthetics were dropped to be inhaled by the patient.
The development of anaesthesia was very important in the advancement of surgery. The speed employed to save the patients from prolonged pain was no longer a main concern, and surgeons were able to spend more time on procedures which later on lead to modern surgery.
Duncum, Barbara. 1947. The Development of Inhalation Anaesthesia. London: RSM Press.
Holt Farndale, Joanna. 2012. “Exploring beneath the Floor of the Old Operating Theatre and Herb Garret”. In Rediscovery, edited by Karen Howell, Julie Mathias, et al. London: Guild of Brave Poor Things Press.
Thomas, K. Bryn. 1975. The Development of Anaesthetic Apparatus. Oxford: Blackwell Scientific Publications.
To cite this post : Iris Millis, “Ether, Anaesthesia and the Old Operating Theatre”, Museum Highlights (blog on oldoperatingtheatre.com), September 1st, 2016.
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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.