Discovery of Anaesthesia

The anaesthetic effect of different gases and potions has long been known but not until Horace Wells purposely made use of nitrous oxide (laughing gas) in the year 1844 was anaesthesia common. Anaesthetics back then were commonly used as drugs rather than with any medical purpose. An interesting article by Henry Wood Erving tells the story of the discovery of anaesthesia by Dr. Horace Wells of Hartford from 1933. Wells actually claims to have found out about anaesthesic effects (rather than just drug abuse) of different substances, especially laughing gas, about two years before Dr. Jackson and Dr. Morton.
It was Wells who also began using laughing gas for dental surgery.
Another brief history of laughing gas can be found on a medical blog from Marian University, largely based on “The Not-So-Funny Tale Of Laughing Gas” by NPR.

As with most other scientifically relevant discoveries, the discovery of anaesthesia happened by accident. Although laughing gas was already well known for its effects on the human perception and consciousness, nobody before Horace Wells used it with anaesthetic purpose. It just happened to be Dr. Wells who witnessed an unusual sight at a show featuring laughing gas in the year 1844. He was sitting in the audience while watching someone use laughing gas. A young man got really drugged and excited and accidentally hurt his leg resulting in a bleeding wound he did not notice until sitting down next to Dr. Wells who then asked him about it. Thus, the discovery of the anaesthetic effect of laughing gas made. Wells then applied laughing gas to himself in an experiment at the time he had to have a tooth removed (he was a dentist himself but let someone else remove his tooth), proving the usefulness of nitrous oxide as an anaesthetic.

Some facts about nitrous oxide can be found here and here.
Nitrous oxide is a compound with the formula N_2 O, is colorless and non-flammable, with a slightly sweet smell, which is the reason why it is sometimes also known as sweet air, although laughing gas is the more common term for it.

To be continued…


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