1. The Man Who Made Anesthesia Famous Was Hated in His Own Time

Anesthesia first entered the public consciousness on October 16, 1846. That was when William T.G. Morton, an enterprising dentist, administered ether to a young man who needed a tumor removed from his neck. The surgery was a success, and the modern age of anesthesia was born. All over the world, medical practitioners quickly realized the great benefits that anesthesia would bring to mankind. Morton, however, was highly criticized for trying to patent “Letheon,” the crude but effective inhaler that he invented to administer gas to patients. Morton died in 1868, a broke and bitter man.


2. There Were a Lot of Bad Ideas

Before anesthesia, surgeons used a grab-bag of techniques to mask pain, many of which have to make you wonder what they were thinking. Some surgeons employed “counterirritants,” rubbing nettles against a patient’s arm to supposedly distract him or her from the agony of the scalpel. Other surgeons might have been somewhat more successful with narcotics made from opium or marijuana. Booze could temporarily numb the pain but it also had the troubling tendency to make the patient puke or die. Perhaps the strangest technique was to render the patient unconscious before surgery with a sock in the jaw—an interesting spin on the job of an anesthesia tech.

3. Surgery Was Really, Really, Really, Really Painful

We are truly fortunate to live at a time when medical professionals can help us get through surgical procedures with as little pain as possible. This is in direct contrast to the days before anesthesia—okay, a doctor didn’t want you to be in pain, but there wasn’t much he could do about it. An 18th century surgical manual (by the aptly named Samuel Sharp) reminded the reader that although amputation was extraordinarily painful, “there is still another Consideration of much higher Importance than any I have mentioned, I mean a less hazard of Life.” In other words, the limb goes or you die. Another 18th century surgical manual suggested that biting down on a piece of wood can help patients endure the pain of amputation, but above all the surgeon had to be fast: “cut quick with a crooked knife before covering the stump with the remaining skin.” An early 19th century writer, Fanny Burney, recorded a moving testimony of what surgery in those days meant for the patient. After a mastectomy, she wrote her sister about the “torturing pain” of the “dreadful steel.”


4. There Were a Lot of Legends About Anesthesia

Painless surgery has been a goal for millennia. So it’s no surprise that there are all kinds of stories about it. One ancient Daoist text tells the story of Bian Que, a legendary healer who helped two men re-balance their Chi. According to the text, Bian Que gave the men wine that made them “feign death” for days, which made it easier for their doctor to cut them open and exchange their hearts. Some Bible commentators have suggested that God Himself sedated Adam before performing divine surgery in Genesis 2:21: “So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then He took one of his ribs and closed up the flesh at that place.” The Bible doesn’t mention whether Adam had health insurance, and, if so, what was his deductible.