The First Use of Ether for Anesthesia

Mind Hacks has put me on to an article in the Boston Globe about the day that ether was first used to produce anesthesia for the purposes of doing surgery. It begins:

The date of the first operation under anesthetic, Oct. 16, 1846, ranks among the most iconic in the history of medicine. It was the moment when Boston, and indeed the United States, first emerged as a world-class center of medical innovation. The room at the heart of Massachusetts General Hospital where the operation took place has been known ever since as the Ether Dome, and the word “anesthesia” itself was coined by the Boston physician and poet Oliver Wendell Holmes to denote the strange new state of suspended consciousness that the city’s physicians had witnessed. The news from Boston swept around the world, and it was recognized within weeks as a moment that had changed medicine forever.

Although the article contains some fascinating information about the history of chemical anesthesia it is written in the heroic (and misleading) style so typical of popular histories. More strangely still, there is no mention of Mesmerism, which had been used for the purposes of anesthesia long before ether, even during surgery. The interested reader should consult Allison Winter’s excellent book Mesmerized: Powers of Mind in Victorian Britain (U Chicago, 1998)

About Christopher Green

Professor of Psychology at York University (Toronto). Former editor of the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. Creator of the "Classics in the History of Psychology" website and of the "This Week in the History of Psychology" podcast series.