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James Young Simpson, M.D.

This Month in Anesthesia History: May

1734 May 23: Franz Anton Mesmer was born. "Under the protection of Marie Antoinette, this Viennese physician received a grant of 30,000 francs from Louis XVI to study the magnetic influence of the stars on human beings. His Memoire sur la decouverte du magnetisme animal [1779] described cures with magnets and hypnosis." [Accardo, The Medical Almanac] Mesmer died in March, 1815. In the years before ether's anesthetic properties were demonstrated by Morton in 1846, such British surgeons as James Esaile, John Elliotson and James Braid experimented extensively with "mesmerism" as a method of surgical pain relief and published various accounts of their successes.

Franz Anton Mesmer

1744 May 31:  Inventor Richard Lovell Edgeworth was born in Bath , England . In his long career Edgeworth served as a member of Parliament and was a Fellow of the Royal Society. His friends included French philosopher Rousseau, engineer James Watt, and Dr. Erasmus Darwin, Charles' grandfather. Edgeworth was both a prolific author and inventor. One of his inventions was the "tellograph" for which 30 tall towers were built across the 130-mile distance between Galway and Dublin. Coded messages were to be transmitted in eight minutes using large triangular pointers; however, Ireland 's weather prevented the consistent visibility needed for success of the project. Edgeworth fathered 22 children by four wives. One of his daughters, Anna, married Dr. Thomas Beddoes, who along with Humphry Davy and numerous others investigated the properties of nitrous oxide inhalation in Bristol in 1799 and 1800. Another daughter, Maria, became a novelist of some note and was a frequent observer of the nitrous oxide experiments. Edgeworth was also a financial patron of Beddoes' Pneumatic Medical Institute where those experiments were conducted. Edgeworth died in 1817; his amazing life is detailed in D. Clarke’s biography, The Ingenious Mr. Edgeworth.

Richard Lovell Edgeworth in 1812

1794 May 8: Antoine Laurent Lavoisier [b.1743], a tax collection official, was beheaded in the early days of the French Revolution. Also a chemist, Lavoisier proposed "oxygen" as the name of the substance isolated by Joseph Priestley, who had called it "dephlogisticated air." Lavoisier is known as the father of modern chemistry because of his theories of combustion, his creation of a new system of chemical nomenclature and his authorship of what is considered the first modern chemistry textbook.

Portrait of Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier and his wife by Jacques-Louis David, ca. 1788

1819, May 31: Walt Whitman, one of America's greatest poets, was born in West Hills, New York. In 1855 Whitman self-published the first version of his collection Leaves of Grass; he would continue to expand and revise the work until his death in Camden, New Jersey, on March 26, 1892. Whitman's great work is, among other things, a portrait of the United States that includes such technological advances as photography, locomotives, steam-driven ferries--and the use of ether for surgical pain relief. During the Civil War Whitman served unofficially as a nurse in several hospitals in the Washington, D.C., area. His poem "A March in the Ranks, Hard-prest" twice mentions "the smell of ether" along with "the odor of blood" and "the doctor's shouted orders." A recent biography of Whitman is Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself by Jerome Loving [University of California Press, 1999].

1829 May 29: Sir Humphry Davy died; he was born in 1778. In addition to his pioneering work with nitrous oxide in Bristol in 1799 and 1800, Davy in 1815 invented a miner's safety lamp that saved many lives in British coal mines. Davy served as Professor of Chemistry at the Royal Institution in London from 1802-1812 during which he made numerous contributions to that science. In 1820 he was elected President of Britain's Royal Society, and at his death he was one of the world's most renowned scientists. His great contribution to anesthesia history is the massive book Research, Chemical and Philosophical, Chiefly Concerning Nitrous Oxide, published in the summer of 1800. Davy was the first human to inhale that gas. 

1846 May 8: First major battle of the U.S. war with Mexico was fought at Palo Alto, Texas. Ether anesthesia was first used in a military conflict in this war, sometime in the spring of 1847 under the direction of American surgeons Edward H. Barton and John B. Porter. [See Aldrete JA, Marron GM, Wright AJ. The first administration of anesthesia in military surgery: on occasion of the Mexican-American War. Anesthesiology 61:585-588, 1984 AND Houghton IT. Some observations on early military anaesthesia.  Anaesth Intensive Care. 2006 Jun;34 Suppl 1:6-15] The Library of Congress offers an excellent list of resources on this conflict at

1848 May: The first annual meeting of the American Medical Association was held in Baltimore.
This meeting produced an extensive report by the Committee on Surgery: Anaesthetic agents. Transactions of the American Medical Association 1:176-224, 1848. The report included a discussion of the physiological effects of ether and chloroform and includes lists and reports of cases at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, the New York Hospital and the clinics of the University of Pennsylvania and Jefferson Medical College. Ether anesthesia had been demonstrated at MGH by William Morton just the previous October.

1859 May 22: Arthur Conan Doyle was born.  His creation Sherlock Holmes first appeared in print in A Study in Scarlet on December 1, 1887. [See Maltby JR. Sherlock Holmes and anaesthesia. Can J Anaesth 35:58-62, 1988 and Bergman NA. Sherlock Holmes and his gasogene. Pharos 58(3): 35-37, summer 1995]

1862 May 6: Henry David Thoreau, American naturalist and author, died from bronchial and respiratory problems at age 44. Thoreau moved into his famous cabin on Walden Pond on July 4, 1845. Thoreau apparently had just one experience with anesthetics a few years later. In May 1851, Thoreau received ether when his dentist removed some teeth. On May 12, Thoreau described the event in his journal. "By taking the ether the other day I was convinced how far asunder a man could be separated from his senses," Thoreau began the lengthy journal entry. "You expand like a seed in the ground. You exist in your roots, like a tree in winter. If you have an inclination to travel, take the ether: you go beyond the farthest star." In the final paragraph of his description, Thoreau seems to undercut his own enthusiasm. "It is not necessary for them to take ether, who in their sane and waking hours are ever translated by thought..." His account is one of a number from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that describe mystical experiences while undergoing anesthesia. Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts, on July 12, 1817.  

Daguerreotype by Maxham of Henry David Thoreau from 1856

1863 May 2: Confederate General Thomas Jonathan "Stonewall" Jackson was wounded by fire from his own troops at the battle of Chancellorsville. "Jackson's left arm was shattered 2 inches below the shoulder joint by a ball that also severed the brachial artery with a second ball passing through the same arm between the elbow and the wrist." Under enemy fire, his men lifted and dragged Jackson toward their lines. Finally placed on a litter, he fell off when one of the bearers was killed. Another bearer stumbled, dropping Jackson again. At last Jackson reached a field hospital, and he was placed under the care of Dr. Hunter Holmes McGuire, an innovative surgeon and expert on the use of chloroform. Early on the morning of Sunday, May 3, McGuire, aided by his anesthetist, a Dr. Coleman, amputated the left arm about two inches below the shoulder. Open drop chloroform was used. Jackson soon awoke, but by the following Thursday had taken a turn for the worse. Finally, on Sunday, May 10, Jackson died with his wife and child by his side. "Let us cross over the river, and rest under the shade of the trees" were his final words. [See Albin MS. The wounding, amputation and death of Thomas Jonathan "Stonewall" Jackson --some medical and historical insights. Bull Anesth History 19(4): 1, 4-7, 15-16, October 2001]

1870 May 6: Scottish physician James Young Simpson died. Simpson discovered the anesthetic properties of chloroform and introduced the agent into obstetrical practice. At the time of his death Simpson was one of the best known physicians in Europe; 80,000 people were said to have lined the streets of Edinburgh for his funeral procession.

1886 May 15: American poet Emily Dickinson died. One of her most famous poems includes: "Pain has an element of blank;/It cannot recollect/Where it began, or if there were/A day when it was not."

1899 May: Paterson described a face mask with an air dilution port.

1920 May: Arthur Guedel’s first paper “on the importance of the physiologic factors in inhalation anesthesia” [Keys, The History of Surgical Anesthesia, p. 77] appeared in the Bulletin of the National Anesthesia Research Society.

1922 May 19: Heinrich Irenaeus Quincke, German internist died in Frankfurt am Main [Quincke was born on August 26, 1842]. Among other notable medical achievements, in the early 1890s Quincke introduced lumbar puncture as a diagnostic and therapeutic tool.
Heinrich Irenaeus Quincke

1997 May 19: Francis F. Foldes, MD, died. Dr. Foldes was an expert on muscle relaxants, local anesthetic agents, and myasthenia gravis who published almost 600 papers and co-authored four books. In 1962 he became the first Chair of the Department of Anesthesiology at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, New York, and served in that post until his retirement in 1975. Dr. Foldes was born June 13, 1910, in Hungary. An obituary published in the ASA Newsletter can be found in the July 1997 issue.
Francis F. Foldes, MD

[Source: Hungarian Society of Anaesthesiology and Intensive Therapy ]

2000 May 25: The first National Anaesthesia Day was held in Great Britain under the auspices of the Royal College of Anaesthetists.

2004 May 2: John D. (Jack) Michenfelder, M.D. died at the age of 73. He completed his residency in 1961 at the Mayo Clinic and then joined the anesthesiology staff there. Dr. Michenfelder is known world-wide for his contributions to neuroanesthesia, especially for his work on cerebral blood flow and metabolism and their responses to anesthetic agents and hypothermia. He had also published important articles on venous and cerebral air embolism. He was the first President of the Society for Neurosurgical Anesthesia and helped to create the establishment of neuroanesthesia as a subspecialty of anesthesiology. Jack Michenfelder was honored by the ASA with the Award for Excellence in Research in 1990 and was the 1988 E. A. Rovenstine Memorial Lecturer. He was a member of the editorial boards of many journals dedicated to the neurosciences and from 1979-1985 was the Editor-in-Chief of Anesthesiology. As a signal honor, Dr. Michenfelder was one of only a handful of anesthesiologists ever elected to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences. --Maurice Albin, M.D. [UAB Anesthesiology Tuesday Report, May 18, 2004]
John D.  Michenfelder, M.D.
[Source: ]

2006 May 8: Prominent European anesthesiologist Jan F. Crul died. Between 1950 and 1995 Dr. Crul authored more than 100 scientific papers in both English and Dutch. He edited three textbooks, Legal Aspects of Anaesthesia (1989), Mass Spectrometry in Anaesthesiology [with M.D. Vickers, 1981) and Patient Monitoring (with J.P. Payne, 1970). Dr. Crul was very active in the Netherlands Society of Anaesthesiology.