The control of pain had been a major barrier to the development of more complex types of surgical intervention, and the discovery of anesthesia thus became one of the greatest discoveries in the history of medicine.
The pain of gout (1799), softground etching and aquatint with watercolor by James Gillray
The agony of pain is clearly evident in this famous etching by Gillray.
safely harvesting mandragora, early text
Physicians provided pain relief throughout the ages in many ways, and extracts from the mandrake plant were used as an anesthetic agent from the time of the earliest recorded medical texts. Because of its hallucinogenic properties, mandragora (Mandragora officiarum) was a standard ingredient in medieval “witches’ brew” though it was also used as a sedative, purgative, emetic, and as an ointment to treat local ulcers. Because the roots are forked, the mandrake plant resembles the human form, and many believed that the plant would cry out when pulled from the ground, causing death or insanity to anyone listening. The use of dogs was the recommended method of obtaining the plant.
the mandrake plant
a mandrake plant resembling the human form
mandrake pills, early twentieth century
This medication would have been over-the-counter and available to all without a prescription.
a bitten bullet found outside a hospital at Cross Keys, Virginia during the Civil War
Though never documented in a text, most believe that the expression to " bite the bullet" came from soldiers given shot to bite to help them cope with a painful procedure. There is some debate since this method was not documented in literature or in texts.
First Operation under Ether (1882–1893), oil on canvas by Robert Hinckley
This famous painting illustrates the introduction of anesthesia to the medical community that took place on October 16, 1846 at the Massachusetts General Hospital amphitheater, now known as the “ether dome.” Dr. John Collins Warren is performing the procedure.
operation using ether for anesthesia in the operating room of the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston (1847)
This daguerreotype was probably taken by Josiah Johnson Hawes. This scene depicts Dr. John Collins Warren standing with his hands on the patient’s thighs during his last lecture at the MGH in the spring 1847. To Warren’s right is Dr. Solomon Townsend, who actually performed the procedure.
a replica of the original Morton ether inhaler (1846) at Harvard
late nineteenth century ether apparatuses
(left to right): Ombredanne with animal bladder by Drapier, ether drip bottle, mounted ether inhaler by Collin
The First Use of Ether in Dental Surgery (1846), late nineteenth century oil on canvas by Ernest Board
the Wilcox-Jewett Obtunder for cocaine injection (ca. 1915)