The Historical Development of the Chemistry of Ether as an Anesthetic

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Anesthetic ether is the actually diethyl ether CH3CH2OCH2CH3. It has been used as an anesthetic in medical surgery for over 150 years, though the hypnotic effects of ether was already discovered 500 years ago. The historical development of ether anesthesia is very dramatic and interesting.

Ether anesthesia: The historical development
Ether was discovered in 1275 by Spanish chemist Raymundus Lullius, and was named ¡§sweet vitriol." In 1540, a German scientist Valerius Cordus described the synthesis of ether . At about the same time, Swiss physician and alchemist Paracelsus discovered the hypnotic effects of ether. In 1730, a German scientist W.G. Frobenius renamed the chemical sweet vitriol into ether.

Scientists and physicians used ether for many different things, but not yet as an anesthetic agent. In 1794, English physicians Richard Pearson and Thomas Beddoes used ether in the treatment of phthisis, catarrhal fever, bladder calculus, and scurvy. These treatments were performed at the Beddoes' Pneumatic Institute. A little later in 1805, American physicians used ether to treat pulmonary inflammation.

Dr. Crawford Williamson Long is the person who first introduced surgical anesthetic use of ether. On March 30, 1842, he removed a tumor from the neck of Mr. James Venable under ether anesthesia. Apparently, he had been using ether for minor surgery as early as in the year of 1841, and had originally learned about ether while in medical school at the University of Pennsylvania. However Dr. Long, he did not publish the results until 1848, appearing in The Southern Medical and Surgical Journal. The late publishing of his surgical report made him missed the credit of the discovery of ether anesthesia, which was given to Morton, which will be mentioned below.

Before ether, the most common anesthetics used in surgical and medical treatments were chloroform and nitrous oxide. In 1844, Connecticut dentist Dr. Horace Wells, age 29, focused his career on the promotion of nitrous oxide anesthesia. Dr. Wells tried to promote his nitrous anesthesia technique in the Boston medical community without much success. He even used the influence of former dental partner Dr. William T.G. Morton, whom had good standing in the local community. They had a shared dental practice back in 1843, and earlier, Morton had actually been tutored in dentistry by Wells. Finally, Dr. Wells was allowed a public demonstration in January 1845 at the Massachusetts General Hospital. The demonstration failed, perhaps due to the dose of nitrous oxide was insufficient. After that Wells left Boston and returned to Hartford and continued his futile promotion of nitrous oxide.

Although Dr. Wells failed to demonstrate nitrous oxide anesthesia, chemist and physician Dr. Charles T. Jackson showed interest in his work, and consulted with Wells on the properties of both ether and nitrous oxide. Dr. Jackson was a professor at the Medical College of Massachusetts. Dr. Morton, a dentist, was also a pre-medical student. In coincidence, Dr. Jackson had tutored Dr. Morton in 1844, preparing him for medical school. Dr. Morton began to receive information about the use of ether from his friend and colleague Dr. Jackson. In 1846, after learning more about ether¡¦s properties, Morton started secret experiments with ether. He experimented on himself as well as small animals at his home in West Needham, Massachusetts. On September 30, 1846 at 9 p.m. in his Boston office, he painlessly removed a tooth from a city merchant Eben H. Frost. The use of ether was successful in Morton's dental practice, and local newspaper began to publicize Morton's technique.

Junior surgeon Dr. Henry Jacob Bigelow noticed these paper articles, and arranged for a demonstration with his colleague, Dr. John Collins Warren, age 68, Senior Surgeon at the Massachusetts General Hospital. To administer the ether, a glass reservoir incorporating pass-over...
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