“This won't hurt a bit…” We've all heard that one before. Through the ages, people have used substances to dull pain—from alcohol to opium. However, through the 1800s many surgical procedures—even amputations!—were performed without any anesthetic at all. By the late-1800s, doctors had developed techniques using ether or chloroform to keep the patient from feeling the pain of surgery. There was always the danger, though, that the dose intended to produce a gentle, pleasant sleep ended up producing something, well, more permanent.

Before anesthesia, the most important element of surgery was time: the longer the operation, the worse the pain. Amputation (the sawing off of a body part—like a hand or a leg) was a common operation. The best surgeons were those who could do it the quickest. A flash of the knife, a few strokes of the saw, and your leg could be off in under two minutes!

Ether was first used in surgery in 1846. Ether is a liquid, but vapourizes quickly in air. When the vapours were inhaled, the patient became unconscious. Ether was a popular anesthetic until around 1950, even though it had a few unpleasant Read More
“This won't hurt a bit…” We've all heard that one before. Through the ages, people have used substances to dull pain—from alcohol to opium. However, through the 1800s many surgical procedures—even amputations!—were performed without any anesthetic at all. By the late-1800s, doctors had developed techniques using ether or chloroform to keep the patient from feeling the pain of surgery. There was always the danger, though, that the dose intended to produce a gentle, pleasant sleep ended up producing something, well, more permanent.

Before anesthesia, the most important element of surgery was time: the longer the operation, the worse the pain. Amputation (the sawing off of a body part—like a hand or a leg) was a common operation. The best surgeons were those who could do it the quickest. A flash of the knife, a few strokes of the saw, and your leg could be off in under two minutes!

Ether was first used in surgery in 1846. Ether is a liquid, but vapourizes quickly in air. When the vapours were inhaled, the patient became unconscious. Ether was a popular anesthetic until around 1950, even though it had a few unpleasant effects: it smelled bad, irritated the throat, and could catch fire (a distraction you could probably do without during a surgery).

Being totally unconscious is one way to avoid the pain of surgery. Another way is to desensitize just the area that is to be operated on—like when your dentist “freezes” your mouth before filling a cavity. This is called “local” anesthesia.

One early popular local anesthetic was cocaine. A famous American surgeon experimented with cocaine on himself as well as his patients. It worked quite well, but the surgeon became addicted and struggled to kick the habit. Soon a number of other drugs, like Novocain, came on the scene. These were less toxic, and less addictive, than cocaine.

© CSTM & UHN 2002. All Rights Reserved.

Illustration of an Amputation

A well-know illustration of an amputation without anesthetic in the 1700s.

Canada Science and Technology Museum, University Health Network Artifact Collection

© CSTM & UHN 2002. All Rights Reserved.


Ether Can

Ether Can around 1950.

Canada Science and Technology Museum, University Health Network Artifact Collection

© CSTM & UHN 2002. All Rights Reserved.


Ether Inhaler

This is a replica of the first ether inhaler. A sponge in the glass globe was soaked in ether. Then the patient breathed in from the spout.

Photo Courtesy of Wood Library-Museum of Anesthesiology, Park Ridge, Illinois

© Wood Library-Museum of Anesthesiology


Novocain Bottle

Novocain suprarenin solution E bottle, around 1950.

Canada Science and Technology Museum, University Health Network Artifact Collection

© CSTM & UHN 2002. All Rights Reserved.


When substances like ether or chloroform were first used, surgeons didn't have any special way to control how much the patient was inhaling. Often the liquid was simply dripped onto a cloth that was held to the patient's mouth and nose—hardly a precise technique!

The same principle was at work with this black rubber mask. It strapped to the patient's head, and the anesthetic was dripped into the small hole on the front.

To control the rate of evaporation of the liquid (and thus control the amount of anesthetic that the patient inhaled), doctors developed specialized apparatus. This one was developed by a lecturer in physiology in Montreal.

This anesthesia machine has the tanks of pressurized gas (oxygen and nitrous oxide) on the side. There is a vapourizing bottle of ether attached near the hoses. The gauges at the top monitor how much gas and anesthetic are going into the patient. The mask is attached with two hoses: one for the air going in, and one for the air going out. The metal canister near the hoses contains a material that absorbs the carbon dioxide that the patient breathes out, so that the patient can safely breathe in the same a Read More
When substances like ether or chloroform were first used, surgeons didn't have any special way to control how much the patient was inhaling. Often the liquid was simply dripped onto a cloth that was held to the patient's mouth and nose—hardly a precise technique!

The same principle was at work with this black rubber mask. It strapped to the patient's head, and the anesthetic was dripped into the small hole on the front.

To control the rate of evaporation of the liquid (and thus control the amount of anesthetic that the patient inhaled), doctors developed specialized apparatus. This one was developed by a lecturer in physiology in Montreal.

This anesthesia machine has the tanks of pressurized gas (oxygen and nitrous oxide) on the side. There is a vapourizing bottle of ether attached near the hoses. The gauges at the top monitor how much gas and anesthetic are going into the patient. The mask is attached with two hoses: one for the air going in, and one for the air going out. The metal canister near the hoses contains a material that absorbs the carbon dioxide that the patient breathes out, so that the patient can safely breathe in the same air again. This avoided wasting anesthetic, and prevented it from being exhaled into the operating room. It's the patient that should be asleep, not the hospital staff!

© CSTM & UHN 2002. All Rights Reserved.

Photos of Masks

First Photo: Simple mask with gauze around 1920.

Second Photo: Anesthesia mask and harness around 1950.

Canada Science and Technology Museum, University Health Network Artifact Collection

© CSTM & UHN 2002. All Rights Reserved.


Alcock's Chloroform

Alcock's chloroform apparatus, around 1910.

Canada Science and Technology Museum, University Health Network Artifact Collection

© CSTM & UHN 2002. All Rights Reserved.


Anesthesia Machine

Anesthesia Machine from a 1960s catalogue,

Canada Science and Technology Museum, University Health Network Artifact Collection

© CSTM & UHN 2002. All Rights Reserved.


Soon after surgeons began using chloroform, they found that a suspicious number of chloroformed patients died during surgery: a nasty side-effect. In the 1910s one surgeon discovered that it was because chloroform could cause heart failure. Doctors realized that they had to closely monitor the heart rate and breathing of their anaesthetized patients.

Tongue forceps like those in the photo below were kept on hand in case the tongue fell back and blocked the airway.

The artificial airway, a later invention, had the same purpose: when inserted, the curved part held the tongue forward and the tube became the passage for air.

On 23 January 1942, Dr. Harold Griffith (1894-1985) of Montreal injected a controversial substance, curare, into a patient having an appendectomy. Curare was known as a paralyzing poison from South America. A poison?! Was Dr. Griffith poisoning his patients? It sounds crazy, but Dr. Griffith found that the right dose of curare, carefully administered, would relax the muscles of the body, so that the surgeon could easily push aside surface muscles to get to the organs beneath. Soon surgeons around the world were using his techniqu Read More
Soon after surgeons began using chloroform, they found that a suspicious number of chloroformed patients died during surgery: a nasty side-effect. In the 1910s one surgeon discovered that it was because chloroform could cause heart failure. Doctors realized that they had to closely monitor the heart rate and breathing of their anaesthetized patients.

Tongue forceps like those in the photo below were kept on hand in case the tongue fell back and blocked the airway.

The artificial airway, a later invention, had the same purpose: when inserted, the curved part held the tongue forward and the tube became the passage for air.

On 23 January 1942, Dr. Harold Griffith (1894-1985) of Montreal injected a controversial substance, curare, into a patient having an appendectomy. Curare was known as a paralyzing poison from South America. A poison?! Was Dr. Griffith poisoning his patients? It sounds crazy, but Dr. Griffith found that the right dose of curare, carefully administered, would relax the muscles of the body, so that the surgeon could easily push aside surface muscles to get to the organs beneath. Soon surgeons around the world were using his technique.

Under anesthesia, a patient can often still breathe on his own. But sometimes the anesthetic reduces the patient’s ability to move the muscles of the chest. Or, as in open-chest surgery, the lungs are exposed to the ambient air pressure and collapse—making breathing almost impossible. To avoid these problems, breathing machines pump oxygen and anesthetic into the lungs at regular intervals, just like natural breathing.

When a breathing machine is used, the doctors don’t use a mask to deliver the gases to the mouth and nose. Instead, a tube is inserted down the throat of the patient, and the gases enter the body right at the entrance to the lungs

Doctors and nurses have monitored the vital signs of an anesthetized patient since the early 1900s. Although electrocardiographs (ECGs: machines that record the electric pulses from the heart) had been invented, they only became standard in operating rooms in the 1960s. ECGs can show even small irregularities in the heartbeat, and can warn the anesthetist well before the problem gets serious.

© CMST & UHN 2002. All Rights Reserved.

Tongue Forceps

Tongue forceps, 1900-1920

Canada Science and Technology Museum and the University Health Network Artifact Collection
1900-1920
© CMST & UHN 2002. All Rights Reserved.


Artificial Airway

Artificial Airway, 2002

Canada Science and Technology Museum and the University Health Network Artifact Collection

© CMST & UHN 2002. All Rights Reserved.


Dr. Griffith at work

Dr. Griffith at work around 1930

Photo Courtesy of McGill University, Department of Anesthesia
1930
© McGill University


Ventilator

Breathing machine (ventilator) at Royal Edward Laurentian Hospital Montreal, 1959.

Photo by David Legget
Courtesy of National Archives of Canada

PA141563
© National Archives of Canada


Electrocardiogram

Electrocardiogram, around 1950.

Canada Science and Technology Museum and the University Health Network Artifact Collection
1950
© CMST & UHN 2002. All Rights Reserved.


Learning Objectives

The learner will:
  • Observe evolution of hospitals, tools and treatments throughout the twentieth century;
  • Identify the evolution of medical technology and discuss its contribution to treatment and medical care;
  • Illustrate concepts in biology, identify specific diseases and treatments offered (past and present).

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