The Discovery of Modern Anaesthesia–Contributions of Davy, Clarke, Long, Wells and Morton
Department of Anesthesiology
Anesthesiology | History of Science, Technology, and Medicine
While many may argue as to who deserves the most credit for the discovery of modern anaesthesia, events in the late 18 th and early 19 th centuries led to the introduction and development of modern anaesthetic techniques. English physicist and chemist Humphry Davy [1778-1829] first became aware of the sedative and analgesic properties of nitrous oxide in 1795. Although he never experimented with the drug during a surgical procedure, he was the first to suggest that it would be beneficial in relieving pain during surgical procedures. The mind-altering properties of nitrous oxide and ether were often abused for recreational purposes, and the term 'ether frolics' was coined to describe such use. While physician William Crawford Williamson Long [1815-1878] first used ether during general surgery, medical student William Edward Clarke [1819-1898] was the first to use ether for dental extraction in 1842. Dr. Long neglected to publicize his findings until 1849, thereby denying himself much of the credit he deserved. Dentist Horace Wells [1815-1848] successfully used nitrous oxide for dental procedures, but a public demonstration which he held in January 1845 turned out to be a fiasco. Medical student William Thomas Green Morton [1819-1868] was the first to publicly demonstrate the effectiveness of ether for general surgery on October 16, 1846. This article seeks to give rightful credit to each of these individuals for their unique contributions to the discovery of modern anaesthesia.