Anesthetics...Used By Medieval Monks!

Today we take the use of anesthesia for granted, whether it be in a dentist's office, a day-surgery center or a hospital. It was surely not always so. A swig of whiskey or brandy was often times all there was to dull the pain.

According to standard histories of the subject, general anesthesia was first introduced in the 1840s. Crawford D. Long in 1842 in Jefferson, Georgia performed surgery under ether, but this was not made public. Nitrous oxide ("laughing gas") was first used in 1844 by a Boston dentist Horace Wells who, while under its influence, permitted the extraction of one of his own teeth. However, a public demonstration of nitrous oxide by Wells in 1845 failed. His partner in dental practice, William T.G. Morton, then successfully demonstrated the effectiveness of ether for general anesthesia in 1846. Morton's epochal achievement was carried out in what is now called the Ether Dome atop the Bulfinch Building at the Massachusetts General Hopital. In 1847, James Y. Simpson in Scotland first employed a general anesthetic, chloroform, in obstetrics.

Scientists in Scotland have now found evidence that medieval monks used crude anesthetic and antiseptic agents. According to a Reuter story, on August 31, 1997, the discovery was made in digging at Soutra Hill some 20 miles (32 kilometers) south of Edinburgh where a large hospital was founded in 1165 and run by Augustinian monks for nearly 400 years until the dissolution of the monasteries. The monks there ministered to casualties from more than 80 armies that fought in the area. The new excavations have uncovered two surgical wards where amputations were done on warriors "anesthetized with opium and hemlock" and where "traces of an analgesic ointment made of opium and lard and a disinfectant ointment laced with arsenic" were also discovered.

Our view of general anesthesia as a 19th-century creation now needs to be revised. We need to push "rapid reverse" to go back to medieval times and credit the monks with some major medical advances, including anesthesia.

Last Editorial Review: 10/23/2002

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