In my last blog post, I began an exploration of the anesthetic practices that existed in early human history. The human body has never been averse to pain, and we as a people, have been searching for ways to satiate the hurt of injury since the beginning of time. We have already covered the dreamy usage of opium and the mandrake root in the Middle East and Europe, the needles of acupuncture in China, and the cannabis vapors of India. In this post, we’ll travel a little further around the world and explore more of the anaesthetic practices humanity cultivated over time.
Coca Leaves – Incan Empire (Modern Day Peru)
The Incan Empire reportedly had several methods to quell the pain of surgery. With the abundance of coca plants readily available, it is no surprise that the Incas turned to the leaf containing the cocaine alkaloid for its numbing effects. It is said that Incan surgeons would grind up the leaf in their mouths and spit into wounds or incisions to numb that area of the body. Before strong anesthetics were discovered, the coca leaf was used for any number of afflictions, ranging from migraines, to broken bones, to childbirth.
Ether – America
The first successful, public demonstration of ether used as an anaesthetic was performed by William T. G. Morton. Morton was a dentist in Massachusetts who was on the search for a more effective alternative to nitrous oxide. He determined that the vapors of sulfuric ether would be the most viable solution, and he performed a public and highly publicized demonstration of inhaled ether vapor as an anesthetic.
Note: Ether did not remain a viable option for very long, as it was known to cause nausea and vomiting for patients that went under.)
Chloroform – Scotland & Greater Europe
The nausea and vomiting caused by ether forced doctors and surgeons to continue their search for other anaesthetic options. James Y. Simpson and several other physicians quickly settled on chloroform as the next best option. It was more potent, worked faster, and was more easily administered than other anaesthetic options.
Curare – Central & South America
Muscle relaxants have been used as anesthetics in the Eastern region for many centuries, while they only only recently entered the Western realm of surgery with the introduction of surgical anaesthetics there. The muscle relaxants were (and continue to be) known as curare, which are any number of alkaloids extracted from plants. Curare was most commonly used as a poison placed on arrows and blow darts. But curare was also used for medicinal purposes as it was known to prevent muscle contractions.
These are the most interesting anaesthetic practices that lead us right up to modern day anaesthetic practices. Cocaine had a brief stint as an oral anesthetic, before its crippling addictive qualities forced medical practitioners to move towards the practices that we use today.