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John Snow, M.D.

This Month in Anesthesia History: April

1578 April 1: William Harvey, the English physician who first described blood circulation, was born.

1755 April 15: Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language was published. The work is considered a landmark of its kind, but does not contain the word "anaesthesia" which was in limited use in English at the time. Used by the ancient Greek and Romans, the word did appear in several English language dictionaries before Johnson's, including Phillips, The New World of Words: or, Universal English Dictionary (6th. Ed., 1706), followed by Bailey, Universal Etymological English Dictionary (1721); James, Medical Dictionary (1743); and the New and Complete Dictionary of Arts and Sciences (1754). A recent book about the creation of Johnson’s Dictionary is Henry Hitchings’ Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary[2006].

1760 April 13: Thomas Beddoes was born at Shifnal, Shropshire, England. He received his M.D. from Oxford in 1786. In the late 1780s Dr. Beddoes began attempts to implement Joseph Priestley's idea for the therapeutic applications of "factitious airs" or gases. By 1798 Beddoes had established the Pneumatic Institute in Clifton, England, and hired the teenage Humphry Davy as Research Director. Their experiments with nitrous oxide and many other gases began the following year. In December 1799 Beddoes published a pamphlet which is the first extensive description of some of these experiments--the first human inhalations of nitrous oxide--and which preceded Davy's famous book by six months. Among numerous other medical and political works, Beddoes authored the classic Observations on the Nature of Demonstrative Evidence [1793], the first work in English to discuss the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. His son, Thomas Lovell Beddoes [1803-1849], was also a physician and author. Beddoes died in Clifton, near Bristol, on December 241808. A recent book about Beddoes and his circle is Mike Jay’s The Atmosphere of Heaven: The Unnatural Experiments of Dr. Beddoes and His Sons of Genius [Yale University Press, 2009].

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Thomas Beddoes, M.D.

1770 April 7: English poet William Wordsworth was born. In 1799 Wordsworth, when both were living in Bristol, asked Humphry Davy to read and suggest revisions to the manuscript for the second edition of Lyrical Ballads, the landmark collection of poetry by Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. During this period Davy and Thomas Beddoes were engaged in their studies of nitrous oxide and other gases. Wordsworth later became Poet Laureate and authored The Prelude among many other poems.

 

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William Wordsworth in 1798

1790 April 17: Benjamin Franklin died in Philadelphia. In addition to his many other achievements, Franklin participated in the first investigation of the animal magnetism claims of physician Franz Anton Mesmer. In 1781 Mesmer left Vienna and relocated in Paris, where the popularity of his claims of healing continued. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart performed a musical play in Mesmer's honor; Queen Marie Antoinette was also a follower. However, King Louis XVI did not fall under Mesmer's spell and asked the French Academy of Sciences to investigate his therapeutic claims. Franklin was one of the many notables appointed to this commission.[See. for instance, McConkey KM, Perry C. Benjamin Franklin and Mesmerism, revisited. Int J Clin Exp Hypn 50(4): 320-331, October 2002] Mesmer's life is depicted in the 1994 film Mesmer starring Alan Rickman. 

1799 April 17: In a letter published in Nicholson's Journal, Humphry Davy announced to the world that nitrous oxide can be inhaled by humans. "I have this day made a discovery," he wrote, "which, if you please, you may announce in your Physical Journal, namely that the nitrous phosoxyd or gaseous oxyd of azote, is respirable when perfectly freed from nitric phosoxyd (nitrous gas)." This observation resulted from work on various gases done by Davy, Dr. Thomas Beddoes and others at Beddoes' Pneumatic Medical Institute in Clifton, near Bristol, England. In July of 1800 Davy published his massive book on this gas research, Researches, Chemical and Philosophical; Chiefly Concerning Nitrous Oxide, or Dephlogisticated Nitrous Air, and its Respiration

1805 April 2: Danish author Hans Christian Andersen was born in Odense. Andersen was a frequent traveler and kept a diary during his trips. In August, 1847, he visited Edinburgh, Scotland, for several days. Several dinners were arranged by the locals for this famous author, and on the night of August 17 Andersen and numerous others dined at the house of prominent physician James Young Simpson. In his autobiography, Andersen wrote that "...in the large circle which was gathered there several experiments were made with breathing in ether. I thought it distasteful, especially to see ladies in this dreamy intoxication...there was something unpleasant about it, and I said so, recognizing at the same time that it was a wonderful and blessed invention to use in painful operations..." Simpson did not discover the anesthetic properties of chloroform until November of that year. [See Secher O. Hans Andersen and James Young Simpson. Br J Anaesth 44:1212-1216, 1972] Andersen died in Copenhagen on August 4, 1875. 

 

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Hans Christian Andersen in 1869

1807 April 18: British physician and writer Dr. Erasmus Darwin died. The grandfather of Charles Darwin, Erasmus was a member of the famed Lunar Society of scientists and industrialists who provided financial and other support to Dr. Thomas Beddoes' investigations of the medical uses of gases in the 1790s. Darwin was a prolific author on medical and scientific subjects and developed a theory of evolution decades before Charles.

1824 April: Before ether anesthesia developed in the 1840s, inhalation of ether vapor in "frolics" was apparently a popular pastime. Crawford Long participated in some of these parties in Georgia before trying the effect on one of his surgical patients in 1842. What follows is an 1824 report of such activities in Philadelphia. "Medical Report: Of late our city has been in some danger from another disease, which, as it must have a title, I shall take the liberty of styling an Artificial Epidemic. It has been recently ascertained that the vapour of Vitriolic Ether, when inhaled into the lungs, produces effects upon the brain and nervous system similar to those of the nitrous oxide gas. This fact was no sooner made public than a thousand experimenters started up, including all ages and both sexes. The smell of Ether prevailed every where. Even the little school boys were seen clubbing their pennies to purchase a vial of the exhilarating fluid, which put into a prepared bladder and eagerly passed from one to another, in some unfrequented spot. We might perhaps feel amused at the ridiculous capers supposed to be cut by these groups had no serious consequences resulted from it. But having ourselves witnessed the serious indisposition of several young ladies, which could be ascribed to breathing Ether, and heard of two well attested cases in which this practice proved fatal, it behoves us to condemn the use of this fluid by inhalation as highly pernicious and dangerous." --The Port-Folio April 1824, p 326 [The Port-Folio was a Philadelphia newspaper published from 1801 until 1827]

1829 April 12: Dr. Jules Cloquet amputated a breast from a woman asleep under hypnosis.

1830 April 5: Henry Hill Hickman died. Six years earlier Hickman had attempted anesthesia in a series of experiments on animals using carbon dioxide gas. Scientists in both France and England [including Humphry Davy!] failed to recognize Hickman's achievement. "Nevertheless, he deserves the credit of having been the first of the modern investigators to prove by experimentation on animals that the pain of surgical operation could be abolished by the inhalation of a gas." [Keys TE. The History of Surgical Anesthesia. Krieger, 1978, p.19]

1847 April 7: Physician and dentist Nathan Cooley Keep administered the first obstetric anesthetic in the United States in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Dr. Keep was both a prominent physician of the Boston area and the first Dean of Dentistry at Harvard. The patient was Fanny Longfellow, second wife of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; that day she delivered the third of their six children together. In his journal entry for April 1, the famed poet and scholar had noted, "Went to town the first time for several weeks and had a conversation with Dr. Keep about the sulphuric ether and its use."

A daguerreotype of Longfellow ca. 1850


Fanny Longfellow; they married in 1843

            Under ether anesthesia, Fanny did not lose consciousness but felt no pain during the birth of her daughter. She later wrote to her sister-in-law about her experience, "I am very sorry you all thought me so rash and naughty in trying the ether. Henry's faith gave me courage...I feel proud to be the pioneer to less suffering for poor, weak womankind. This is certainly the greatest blessing of this age and I am glad to have lived at the time of its coming and in the country which gives it to the world..." The day after this successful delivery, Longfellow stopped by Dr. Keep's office and later wrote that he had "a double tooth extracted under the ethereal vapor. On inhaling it, I burst into fits of laughter. My brain whirled round, and I seemed to soar like a lark spirally into the air."  You can find more information about these events in Dr. Richard Clark's "Fanny Longfellow and Nathan Keep" in the September 1997 issue of the ASA Newsletter and Dr. Herschel H. Reynolds' "A courageous lady--Mrs. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow" in the December 1957 issue of the Journal of the American Dental Association.

1852 April 29: First edition of Peter Mark Roget's famous thesaurus was published in England. After graduation from medical school in Edinburgh, Roget spent 1799 in Bristol working with Thomas Beddoes and Humphry Davy on their famous nitrous oxide research. Roget later wrote the Encyclopedia Britannica entry on Beddoes and near the end of his life created the thesaurus for which he is so well known. Roget also invented the slide rule and the pocket chessboard and did research on vision physiology later used as the basis for motion pictures.  A recent biography of Roget is Joshua Kendall’s The Man Who Made Lists [2008]. 

1853 April 7: Dr. John Snow chloroformed Queen Victoria for the birth of Prince Leopold. In his case book, Snow noted, "Administered chloroform to the Queen in her confinement...Here Majesty expressed great relief from the application...the Queen appeared very cheerful and well [after expulsion of the placenta], expressing herself much gratified with the effect of the chloroform."  [See Ellis RH, ed. The Case Books of Dr. John Snow. Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, 1994, p. 271]

1856 April 12: Dr. Marshall Hall [1790-1857] described artificial respiration in The Lancet.

1868 April: The Odontological Society of Great Britain and the Committee of Management of the Dental Hospital of London created a committee to investigate nitrous oxide. In its first report in December 1868, the committee stressed the elimination of air inhalation during nitrous oxide administration, but warned of the lethal potential of this method. See “Protoxide of Nitrogen as an Anaesthetic” published in the British Medical Journal on December 12 of that year [2:622, 1868].

1869 April 8: The great neurosurgeon Harvey William Cushing was born in Cleveland, Ohio. In 1894 Cushing and his fellow "house pup" at the Massachusetts General Hospital, E.A. Codman, developed the first anesthesia record.

1871 April 16: John Millington Synge, Irish dramatist and poet [Riders to the Sea, etc] was born. In 1916 a fascinating account of his experiences under ether anesthesia was published posthumously: "I seemed to traverse whole epochs of desolation and bliss. All secrets were open before me...." he wrote.  [Under ether. Personal experiences during an operation. Interstate Medical Journal 23:45-49, 1916]. Synge's account is part of a large body of literature related to anesthesia and mystical experiences. He died March 24, 1909. 

1887 April 27: George Thomas Morton, son of William T.G. Morton, performed the first appendectomy.

1898 April: Henry Hillard described induction of nitrous oxide anesthesia with face mask and maintenance of anesthesia with nasopharyngeal insufflation.

1923 April 7: First brain tumor operation under local anesthesia wasperformed by Dr. K. Winfield Ney at Beth Israel Hospital in New York City.

1939 April 30: The New York World's Fair opened. Included in the opening ceremonies was an address by President Franklin D. Roosevelt via a brand-new medium, television. "The 1939 New York World's Fair [also] presented a unique opportunity for the newly recognized specialty of anesthesiology to be presented to the general public. With funding supplied by the Winthrop Chemical Company of New York City and careful planning, a committee of physician-anesthetists was able to design a display that illustrated all aspects of the physician-anesthetist's role in health care: general "gas" anesthesia, regional techniques, pain management, resuscitation, and oxygen therapy. Further information was offered concerning training of physicians in the specialty, and speculation involving the future mission of anesthesiology was presented. Surprisingly, issues and discussions concerning the fashion in which anesthesia was to be presented at this exhibit remain germane to current presentations of the specialty to the general public. Although no record remains of the public's response to the exhibit, the World's Fair was an international showcase and an important opportunity for public recognition of anesthesiology." [abstract for Bacon DR, Lema MJ, Yearley CK. For all the world to see: anesthesia at the 1939 New York World's Fair. J Clin Anesth 5:252-258, 1993]

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Trylon, Perisphere and Helicline at the 1939 World’s Fair in NYC 
photo by Sam Gottscho

2005 April 17: Lt. Commander Wheeler B. Lipes died in New Bern, North Carolina. In September 1942 Pharmacist's Mate Lipes was aboard the submarine Seadragon on patrol in the South China Sea and about a week's journey from the nearest Allied port. A young seaman named Darrell Dean Rector developed appendicitis, and Lipes, who had observed several appendectomies as a laboratory technician in a naval hospital, became the surgeon. Metal spoons were bent at right angles to use as muscle retractors, and sulfa pills were ground up and used as the antiseptic. An ether mask was made from a tea strainer covered with gauze, and the ship's communications officer, Lt. Franz P. Hoskins, became the anesthetist. The surgery was successful and one of two such operations performed aboard U.S. submarines during World War II. Seaman Rector was later one of 78 crewman lost aboard the submarine Tang when it was struck by a torpedo in October 1944. George Weller of the Chicago Daily News won a Pulitzer Prize for his article about the surgery, which was featured in such films as Destination Tokyo [1943] and Run Silent, Run Deep [1958] and on the 1950s television series, The Silent Service. This event was also featured on the Cavalcade radio program episode "Pharmacist's Mate" broadcast on May 23, 1943, and starring Will Geer. Lipes' obituary appeared in the New York Times on April 20, 2005.