The History Of Anesthesia: How We Discovered Painkillers

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Reenactment of the first operation under anesthesia (ether). The actual operation took place on October 16, 1846; this reenactment took place shortly afterwards. (Southworth & Hawes/Wikimedia Commons)

No one is ever happy about a surgical procedure, but at least the gut-wrenching agony of feeling your body ripped in twain is off the table. Until the 19th century, people didn't have that option. An operation in the days before anesthesia, and even the early days of painkillers, meant being completely awake, aware, and in unimaginable pain while a doctor did their thing. The story of the discovery of anesthesia is so horrifying that you'll be thanking your doctor the next time you go under the knife.

No Fun For Anyone

As little as patients liked to be cut open by a doctor in the days before anesthesia, those doctors were just as upset about doing the cutting. John Abernethy, a surgeon at London's St. Bartholomew's Hospital in the early 1800s, likened going into an operation to "going to a hanging," which isn't the first comparison you want from the person performing the operation.

Back then, surgery was so harrowing that patients often chose to simply live with whatever condition they had for as long as they could, and those who did brave the knife came back with stories that were made of nightmares. In 1811, author and playwright Fanny Burney had the forethought to write about her experience as a pre-anesthesia mastectomy patient:

When the dreadful steel was plunged into the breast ... I needed no injunctions not to restrain my cries. I began a scream that lasted intermittently during the whole time of the incision ... so excruciating was the agony ... I then felt the knife [rack]ling against the breast bone—scraping it.