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How Queen Victoria Spared You the Agony

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Whenever someone tells you that the modern economy makes people miserable and that people felt just as happy generations ago, ask the following question: "Would you like open-heart surgery without anesthesia?"

Today "sedation dentists" advertise on radio programs, offering to lull anxious patients to sleep for mere tooth cleanings. And so it's hard for us in 2014 to imagine that in the 1850s doctors would amputate limbs without either washing their hands or putting their patients into a sleepy mood. Because the pain was so horrifying, surgeons prided themselves on how quickly they could slice. Every extra second shaved off the clock meant one less second in Hell. In those days, "One Less Leg in Under a Minute" sounded like a great deal.

Surgeons and witch doctors have been cutting into bodies since 12,000 BC. So how did anesthesia finally sneak into surgery wards? It's a typical story of commercial innovation. That is, it's messy, sometimes sordid, and filled with morality tales and hucksterism. But oh, so, worth the grime!

I just saw a marvelous play called Ether Dome by Elizabeth Egloff and directed by the acclaimed Michael Wilson at La Jolla Playhouse. Ether Dome shows that ether entered the surgery protocol only after a Connecticut dentist tripped upon a traveling salesman who was hawking laughing gas in a carnival setting. The dentist, Horace Wells, took a whiff of laughing gas, broke into a stupor, broke into a fistfight, and then broke his nose. But all along he felt no pain! Soon after, he started puffing nitrous oxide (laughing gas) into the lungs of his dental patients.

Wells's somewhat crooked protege, William Morton, stole ideas from Ralph Waldo Emerson's brother-in-law, Dr. Charles Jackson, and then substituted ether for laughing gas. In 1846, under the dubious eyes of snobby Harvard-trained surgeons at Massachusetts General Hospital, Morton gave ether to the victim of a horrible neck tumor. The surgeons expected the patient to flail, thrash and punch when he felt their blades cut into his flesh. But the patient lay still. They proceeded to slice off the tumor. The patient casually announced, "Feels as if my neck's been scratched." The chief surgeon proclaimed to the world: "Gentlemen, this [ether] was no humbug!" In honor of the riveting event, the operating room was dubbed the Ether Dome.

But credit for pharmaceuticals and general anesthesia should also go to Queen Victoria. At the time ministers and moralists cited the Bible and demanded that women suffer pain during childbirth ("I will greatly multiply they sorrow," King James Bible). The City Fathers of Zurich banned pain relief, proclaiming, "Pain is a natural and intended curse of the primal sin. Any attempts to do away with it must be wrong." Victoria did not care much for Zurich's city fathers and instead invited her doctors to prepare a whiff of chloroform before she delivered Prince Leopold in 1853. When the prince came out of the womb healthy, and the queen was successfully revived from her slumber, patients throughout the world began demanding and administering not Bibles to thump, but gas to inhale.

How did the characters in this drama end up?

Queen Victoria reigned another 47 years; Dr. Wells turned into a crazed Jekyll and Hyde character who breathed in too much chloroform, hurled acid at New York prostitutes, and then killed himself in prison; Dr. Morton spent his years and his income fighting off claims that others first invented ether as an anesthetic. Creditors burned Morton in effigy, and he died broke in 1868. Dr. Charles Jackson went mad and spent his final years in an asylum, no doubt insanely jealous of Morton and his brother-in-law Ralph Waldo.

But what's the legacy of this sometimes sad and sordid story? First, you can see Egloff's engaging play. Second, you can visit the Ether Dome, a National Historical Landmark in Boston. Third, and most important, you can survive surgery without the howls, wails, cries and hell that reigned for the first 14,000 years of medical history.