iPlayer Radio What's New?
Image for Anaesthetics

Listen now 45 mins

Listen in pop-out player

Anaesthetics

Duration:
45 minutes
First broadcast:
Thursday 29 March 2007

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the history of anaesthetics, from laughing gas in the 1790s to the discovery of “blessed chloroform”. Remembering his unsuccessful stint at Edinburgh Medical school Charles Darwin described the horrors of surgery before anaesthetics : "I attended the operating theatre and saw two very bad operations... but I rushed away before they were completed. Nor did I ever attend again, for hardly any inducement would have been strong enough to make me do so; this being long before the blessed days of chloroform. The two cases fairly haunted me for many a long year."

The suffering Darwin witnessed is almost unimaginable. In the 19th Century, a simple fracture often led to amputation carried out on a conscious patient, whose senses would be dulled only by brandy or perhaps some morphine. Many patients died of shock.

The properties of gases like nitrous oxide or “laughing gas” held out hope. The chemist Humphrey Davy in the 1790s described it as “highly pleasurable, thrilling”. He also noticed his toothache disappeared. But he failed to apply his observations and it wasn't until the 1840s that there was a major breakthrough in anaesthetics, when an enterprising dentist in Boston managed to anaesthetize a patient with ether. It became known as the “Yankee Dodge”. Ether had its drawbacks and the search for a suitable alternative continued until chloroform was tried in 1847, winning many admirers including Queen Victoria, the first English royal to use it.

So why did it take so long for inhaled gases to advance from providing merely recreational highs to providing an essential tool of humane surgery? What role did the development of the atomic bomb play in the development of anaesthetics? And how have society's changing attitudes to pain informed the debate?

With David Wilkinson, Consultant Anaesthetist at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London and President of the History of Anaesthesia Society; Stephanie Snow, Research Associate at the Centre for the History of Science, Technology & Medicine at the University of Manchester; Anne Hardy, Professor in the History of Modern Medicine at University College London

  • Further Reading

    Thomas Dormandy, The Worst of Evils: The fight against pain (London, 2006)

    Barbara Duncum, The Development of Inhalational Anaesthesia (London 1947, republished 1994)

    Martin Pernick, A Calculus of Suffering: Pain, Professionalism and Anaesthesia in Nineteenth-Century America (New York, 1985)

    Alison Winter, ‘Ethereal epidemic: mesmerism and the introduction of inhalational anaesthesia to early Victorian Britain’, Social History of Medicine, 4 (1991):1-27.

    Stephanie J. Snow, Operations Without Pain, The Practice and Science of Anaesthesia in Victorian Britain (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006)

    Peter Vinten-Johansen, Howard Brody, Nigel Paneth, Stephen Rachman, Michael Russell Rip, Cholera, Chloroform and the Science of Medicine: A Life of John Snow (OUP, USA, 2003)

Broadcasts

Featured in...

  • 19th Century

    Browse the 19th Century era within the In Our Time archive.

  • Science archive

    Scientific principles, theory, and the role of key figures in the advancement of science.

  • Victorian

    Browse the Victorian era within the In Our Time archive.

In Our Time Downloads

melvyn-bragg.jpg

Every episode of In Our Time - available to download to listen to when & where you want.

Free downloads

  1. Image for In Our Time Archive: Culture

    In Our Time Archive: Culture

    Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the history of ideas as it applies to culture - from literature…

  2. Image for In Our Time Archive: History

    In Our Time Archive: History

    Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the people, conflicts and events that have shaped the world.

  3. Image for In Our Time Archive: Philosophy

    In Our Time Archive: Philosophy

    Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the history of philosophy - from ancient Greek thinkers to the…

  4. Image for In Our Time Archive: Religion

    In Our Time Archive: Religion

    Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the history of religious ideas - from the faith systems of…

  5. Image for In Our Time Archive: Science

    In Our Time Archive: Science

    Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the history of ideas and the evolution of the sciences - from…

  6. Image for In Our Time With Melvyn Bragg

    In Our Time With Melvyn Bragg

    Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the history of ideas - including topics drawn from philosophy,…

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Added. Check out your playlist Dismiss