Thursday, August 5, 2010

To Sleep, Perchance to Operate

Where would we be without the wonders of anesthesia? The art of surgery would not have advanced as it has without the means to safely deliver a person to sleep, void of sensation. Despite the importance of anesthesia to modern surgery, I’ll wager that many of us are unfamiliar with the history of anesthesia, which makes the article by Arthur and Odo in the June issue of the AMWA Journal all the more valuable.

Anesthesia is not a typical subject for the Journal’s Science Series; most articles in this recurring section have focused on a systems approach to the human body. But anesthesia seemed like an interesting departure, and the article provides an overview of the evolution of anesthesiology, complete with photos of early anesthesia apparatus. Obviously, Arthur and Odo could not address the complete history of anesthesia in the article; after all, entire books have been dedicated to the topic. If the article left you wanting to know more about the miracle of anesthesia, you can find supplementary information online.

As an odd coincidence, anesthesia is the topic of a post on the recently launched New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) blog. In the post “The Knife and the Cutting Edge,” Rena Xu notes that the NEJM archives includes an article, published in 1846, in which Henry Jacob Bigelow, a surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital, described the first use of ether in a surgery performed by William T. G. Morton. The event, as Arthur and Odo write, was a “turning point” for anesthesiology.

You can also find more about the history of anesthesia on an MGH Neurosurgical Service page celebrating 150 years of ether (a page created in 1996). Referring to ether as “medicine’s greatest gift,” the site contains several articles, one of which recounts the controversy of 4 men who each claimed to be the first to use an anesthetic to prevent pain during surgery. (A controversy also noted by Arthur and Odo.) Another article on the site describes the famous painting by Robert Hinkley that depicts the seminal event in anesthesiology.

According to the American Association of Nurse Anesthetists, nurses were the first professional group to provide anesthesia services in the United States. In recognition, the association’s Web site includes a brief history of nurses’ involvement in the practice of anesthesiology.

If you enjoy documentaries, check out a 10-minute video on YouTube that chronicles the history of anesthesia. (The documentary was an award winner in the St. Louis National History Day competition.) YouTube also features a shorter video that presents the history of anesthesia through images.

Who knew that “going under” could be so interesting?

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