Best Medicine: Thank goodness for anaesthetic

Imagine a world without anaesthetics... No thanks!
23 April 2019

Interview with 

Sophie Goggins, National Museums Scotland


A team of doctors walking through a hospital corridor


Sophie Goggins, curator of Biomedical science at National Museums Scotland, takes Adam Murphy through the horrible history of anaesthetics.

Sophie - Yes. From my point of view I definitely think the best in medical history in Scotland is the introduction of anaesthesia into surgery. If we cast our minds back to before having anesthetic during surgery your options were pretty limited. You could either be very drunk before surgery, you could have a whack on the head and hope you go unconscious, or that you pass out from shock, or just nothing at all. There's a very famous case in 1811 of Fanny Burney, who had a double mastectomy without any drugs whatsoever, and according to the surgeon “did not so much as murmur”, which I find unlikely.

Adam - What do we use first? What was the first kind of anaesthetic?

Sophie - Actually one of the first ones that was used usefully was opium. But then the discovery of nitrous oxide, or "laughing gas". When the person who discovered laughing gas went to go showcase it in the medical arena, they actually mucked up the way that it was administered and their patient cried out in pain. So, despite being the one that we still used today, it was the one that was rejected at the time.

They then moved pretty quickly onto ether, which is decent in terms of anesthetic but is pretty smelly and also very, very flammable. Two things that are a little bit of a problem during surgery. Also it caused your patient to excessively vomit, which didn't necessarily help with the kind of rate of recovery for patients. But then, of course, at the time what was more important for surgery was speed. You needed to be fast to be able to get your surgeries done in time. The one who's most famous is Dr. Robert Liston who could get off a leg in two and a half minutes, although after the introduction of chloroform he had it down to 25 seconds.

Adam - Did I read somewhere once he once did an operation with a 300 percent mortality rate?

Sophie - He did indeed.

Chris - Does that mean you kill someone three times?

Sophie - No, he nicked a patient's artery and then while trying to fix it went through the hand of the assistant who was helping him with the surgery, and then whilst spinning round actually nicked a spectator in the crowd.

Chris - What was he armed with, a chainsaw?

Sophie - I will also say he is quite famous for: while taking off someone's leg at speed, while trying to time himself to do the fastest amputation, he did also accidentally take off someone's testicle.

Chris - He sounds like the kind of surgeon you want, isn't it!

Adam - Brilliant, thank you very much. I am really glad we have anaesthetic now.

Sophie - Yes. We are very lucky that in 1847 James Young Simpson hosted a very famous dinner party in that instead of after dinner drinks you had after dinner drugs. He had his people who came to his dinners test out different types of potential anaesthetic liquids, or properties. He tested out chloroform on his patients after dinner, and everyone of course lost consciousness, and he used it thankfully again, tested it, and used it on patients later that week. It went on to be used by people like Queen Victoria who made it very popular.

Adam - And then I think everyone in the audience can choose: what would you rather? To get drunk, a bonk on the head, or just a good cry? Thank you, Sophie.


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