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History of Anesthesia

Pain is the way our body lets us know there is something wrong. It is the defense mechanism the body uses to assure we seek help and treatment for the root cause of the pain. Pain is not a disease or an injury, but is a symptom of a disease, illness or injury. Once the disease, illness or injury is diagnosed, pain becomes the hindrance in recovery. A body experiencing pain can’t recover to the best of its ability.

In surgical operations, pain would be intolerable if not controlled. Throughout history, there have been numerous attempts at controlling and eliminating pain. The Chinese developed acupuncture. The Greeks and Romans used alcohol to not only cleanse the body, they also encouraged the patient to drink the alcohol to the point of oblivion.

American Indians relied on the bark of the willow tree, a precursor to our modern-day aspirin. As history evolved, so did medicine and the management of pain. Crawford W. Long, an American doctor, became the first doctor to use ether during a surgery he performed in 1824 to remove a tumor. It wasn’t until an American dentist, William Thomas Green Morton, used ether to remove a tooth and the results were publicized, that the use of ether during surgical procedures became common.

This type of painkiller had no name until Oliver Wendell Holmes, an American physician and poet, proposed in a letter written in 1846, the pain-killer be named “anaesthesia.” He chose this from the Greek word “anaisthesia,” meaning “‘lack of sensation or feeling.” The word became popular, and was included in the “Oxford English Dictionary” as “anesthesia” in 1847. In 1848, the adjective “anesthetic” was added. It must be noted, the word as “anaesthesia” was originally entered in Bailey’s “Universal Etymological English Dictionary” in 1721. However, it was the letter written by Oliver Wendell Holmes that gave “anaesthesia” popular usage.