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Sir Humphry Davy, 1830 engraving based on the painting by 
Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769–1830)

This Month in Anesthesia History: December

1298 December 24: Theodoric of Lucca, Italian physician and bishop, died. He developed the "soporific sponges" soaked with opium and mandragora, for surgical pain relief. [See Juvin P, Desmonts JM. The ancestors of inhalational anesthesia: the Soporific Sponges (XIth-XVIIthcenturies): how a universally recommended medical technique was abruptly discarded. Anesthesiology. 2000 Jul;93(1):265-9]

1778 December 17: Humphry Davy was born in Penzance, Cornwall, England. In 1799 in Bristol, England, Davy became the first person to breath nitrous oxide. In 1800 he published a massive book, Researches, Chemical and Philosophical, chiefly concerning Nitrous Oxide . . . and its Respiration, about the laboratory, animal and human experiments on gases that he, Dr. Thomas Beddoes, and numerous others conducted at Beddoes' Pnemautic Medical Institute. In this book he suggested that nitrous oxide could be used to relieve the pain of some surgeries. After moving to London in 1801, Davy's scientific achievements made him one of the luminaries of the age. He discovered several new elements, was a pioneer in the new field of electrochemistry, and lectured before large audiences. One of his best-known achievements was a very practical one--a miner's lamp designed to dissipate the heat of the flame and thus less likely to ignite the methane gas present in mines. Davy became a fellow of the Royal Society in 1803 and served as its president from 1820 to 1827. He was knighted in 1812 and died in 1829. 

1780 December 26: English physician John Fothergill died in London. Among many other accomplishments, this devout Quaker was the first to accurately describe migraines, and recognized that hardening of the arteries could cause chest pain. In 1744 he published an account of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to revive the apparently dead. Fothergill was also the first to recognize the symptoms of diphtheria and maintained an extensive botanical garden near Stratford which contained plants from all over the world.  Fothergill was born on March 8, 1712, in Wensleydale, Yorkshire. 

 

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John Fothergill, M.D.  by Gilbert Stuart

1799 December 6: The great Scottish chemist Joseph Black, who isolated carbon dioxide, died. Among numerous others, Black taught Thomas Beddoes when the latter was a medical student at the University of Edinburgh in the 1780s. At the time of his death Black and James Watt were duplicating in Birmingham Beddoes and Davy's work with nitrous oxide in Bristol.

 

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Mezzotint engraving of Joseph Black by James Heath after Sir Henry Raeburn

1808 December 24: Dr. Thomas Beddoes died.  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. His Notice of Some Observations made at the Medical Pneumatic Institution (I799) is the first substantial publication about human respiration of nitrous oxide. 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. Beddoes was born at Shifnal, Shropshire, England, on April 13, 1760.

 

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Thomas Beddoes, M.D.

1844 December 10: Dentist Horace Wells attended a demonstration of nitrous oxide inhalation at Union Hall in Hartford, Connecticut. At this exhibition by Gardner Quincy Colton, Wells conceived the notion of pain relief by gas inhalation, and thus rediscovered an idea Humphry Davy expressed over four decades earlier. However, Wells quickly put the idea into practice. Later in the century Colton single-handedly revived interest in nitrous oxide for dentistry.

1844 December 11: Colton administered nitrous oxide to Wells while another dentist, Dr. John M. Riggs, extracted one of Wells' teeth. This event is thus the first dental use of nitrous oxide.

1846 December 15: Ether anesthesia was first administered in Paris, France. The anesthetic was given by Francis Willis Fisher [1821-1877], a young physician from Boston, for the excision by the French surgeon Jobert of a large cancer on the lower lip of a 59 year-old man. The surgery was performed at St. Louis Hospital. In January 1847 Fisher administered successful anesthesia for cases of two other French surgeons, A.Velpeau and P.J. Roux.  Fisher, an 1845 graduate of Harvard Medical School, lived in Paris from about November 1846 through February 1847. His account of the first Parisian ether anesthetic was published in the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal in 1847 as “The Ether Inhalation in Paris.” [36:109-113]. 

1846 December 19: English dentist James Robinson administered ether for removal of a diseased molar tooth from a young female patient.

1846 December 21: The first surgical anesthetic with ether is administered in England by William Squire during surgery by Robert Liston. Liston may have given ether to Squire's assistant on either the 19th or 20th as he, William and Peter Squire worked on suitable equipment and technique.

1847 December 7: Robert Liston, first surgeon in England to use ether, died.

1849 December: Crawford Long finally published an account of his 1842 administrations of ether anesthesia in the Southern Medical and Surgical Journal

1857 December 3: Carl Koller is born. In the early 1880s he was a house surgeon at the Vienna General Hospital and along with his friend Sigmund Freud studied the physiological effects of cocaine. Freud eventually lost interest, but Koller continued the research and in 1884 discovered the local anesthetic properties of the drug when he injected a weak solution of cocaine into the eye of a frog. Koller died in 1944.

1868 December: A committee formed in April by the Odontological Society of Great Britain and the Committee of Management of the Dental Hospital of London to investigate nitrous oxide made its first report. The report recommended the elimination of air inhalation during nitrous oxide administration but also stresses the potential dangers of this method.

1887 December 1: Sherlock Holmes first appears in print in Arthur Conan Doyle's novel A Study in Scarlet, first published in Beeton’s Chritsmas Annual. [see Maltby JR. Sherlock Holmes and anaesthesia. Can J Anaesth 35:58-62, 1988 and Bergman NA. Sherlock Holmes and his gasogene. Pharos58(3): 35-37, summer 1995]

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Arthur Conan Doyle

1896 December 10: Alfred Jarry's legendary avant-garde play Ubu Roi opens and closes in Paris. Jarry's play was so scandalous that the audience rioted for fifteen minutes; the spectacle made the young writer famous His other prose and theatrical works also enraged tender French sensibilities, but his work has influenced such artistic movements as Dadaism, Cubism and Surrealism and artists ranging from Picasso to the Marx Brothers and Monty Python. Born in 1873, Jarry was addicted to absinthe and substituted ether sniffing when he could not afford his favorite drink. He died in 1907 at aged 34.

 

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Alfred Jarry

1901 December 17:  Janet G. Travell, a pioneer in the treatment of myofascial pain, is born in New York City. She was co-author of the two-volume classic Myofascial Pain and Dysfunction: The Trigger Point Manual. From 1961 to 1963 she served as personal physician to President John F. Kennedy. Dr. Travell died in 1997. You can read more about her in Wilson VP. Janet G. Travell, MD: A Daughter's Recollection. Tex Heart Inst J 30(1):8-12, 2003.  

1945 December 28: American novelist Theodore Dreiser dies at age 74 in Hollywood, California. Dreiser's best known works are probably his novels Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy. In February 1915 Dreiser published in Smart Set magazine his one-act play "Laughing Gas" in which a physician having surgery has a mystical experience while under nitrous oxide anesthesia. [see Wright AJ. Theodore Dreiser's "Laughing Gas." Anesth Analg 69:391-392, 1989] Dreiser was born on August 27, 1871, in Sullivan, Indiana. 

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Theodore Dreiser c.1910s

2000 December 31: Dr. Hiram Elliot dies in Birmingham, Alabama. A 1938 graduate of the University of Tennessee School of Medicine, Dr. Elliot became one of the earliest physicians in Alabama to devote his practice to anesthesia. In March, 1948, Dr. Elliot, along with Drs. Alice McNeal, Alfred Habeeb and E. Bryce Robinson, Jr., founded the Alabama State Society of Anesthesiologists. In 1973 Dr. Elliot founded the Anesthesiology Department at Brookwood Hospital and practiced there until his retirement in 1991. An obituary for Dr. Elliot was published in the Birmingham News on January 2, 2001. He was born in Mississippi on June 18, 1913.