100 Greatest Science Inventions of All Time

By Kendall Haven | Go to book overview

Anesthesia
Year of Invention: 1846

What Is It? Drugs that block the sense of pain during medical operations.

Who Invented It? William Morton (in Boston)


Why Is This Invention One of the 100 Greatest?

Anesthesia created safe surgery and made many operations practical and plausible. The trauma suffered by patients during operations was often so dangerous that it kept doctors from attempting many surgical procedures.

Anesthesia eliminated much of the pain, fear, anxiety, and suffering for medical and dental patients during most procedures and gave the medical profession a chance to develop and refine the procedures that would save countless millions of lives.


History of the Invention

What Did People Do Before?

The concept of anesthesia is millennia old. Doctors in ancient Chinese developed acupuncture techniques that blocked the transmission of pain sensations to the brain—effectively numbing parts of the body for surgery. Inca shamans chewed coca leaves and spit the juice (cocaine) into wounds and cuts to numb their patients’ pain. European doctors issued gulps of brandy to dull their patients’ senses before operating. By the sixteenth century, soldiers wounded in battle often gulped enough brandy while waiting for the “butcher’s blade” (doctor’s knives and saws) that they passed out and died from alcohol poisoning.


How Was Anesthesia Invented?

Three anesthesia drugs arrived in American and European hospitals within a few years of each other: nitrous oxide, chloroform, and ether. Two of them enjoyed brief popularity. One of them, ether, was commonly used for over a century.

Nitrous oxide (NOX) was the first to be developed and tested. English priest and chemist Joseph Priestly (the man who discovered and named oxygen) was also the first to chemically create NOX, in 1772. He noted its mind-dulling effects and moved on to other experiments.

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