Today, anesthesia in 1848. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
By 1848, the Columbian
Magazine had become fare for women, served up
by men -- a kind of Ladies Home Journal.
Here, on one left-hand page is an anonymous poem,
To a Pink Hyacinth. On the right, begins
an article titled Recollections of a Physician.
I'll spare you the poem, and go to the article.
The writer tells of being called to the home of
Miss. E. Miss E. is nineteen, beautiful,
intelligent, and she seems quite healthy.
She seats him in the parlor to tell her story. A
tumor on her shoulder has to be removed surgically
-- and soon. Her fiancé is
returning by steamer from Liverpool
However, she's told her regular doctor that she
cannot face his knife; she wants chloroform. He's
told her that chloroform is too dangerous. And he
thinks she should be able to bear the pain. So she
asks our writer for a second opinion. He supports
her doctor. Chloroform is dangerous.
Nervous and upset, she pays him "a generous fee,"
and sees him out. The matter appears to be closed.
Two items to think about here: First her
fiancé's steamer: Steam-powered passenger ships are
only ten years old, and they still carry sail. It is very new
technology. I mention that because we're watching
two new technologies changing everyday life.
Chloroform is even newer. It was synthesized
seventeen years earlier, but first used as an
anesthetic in Edinburgh, only the year before.
After that it rapidly found its way into European
medicine. The same year Miss E. requested
it for her operation, Prince Albert had considered
using it for the birth of Queen Victoria's and
his sixth child. (They actually did use it for their eight child.)
So Miss E.'s plea for chloroform was very early in
the game. It's also surprising, because ether, which'd been around some
six years, was the American choice for anesthesia.
In the Civil War, Louisa May
Alcott, serving as a nurse in a Union hospital,
The merciful magic of ether was not [used
today]. ... [And the beds] shook with the
irrepressible tremor of ... tortured bodies.
So, what of Miss E.? Four days later, our author is
hastily summoned to find her lying so still that
her family can't tell if she's alive or dead. She'd
finally convinced her doctor to use chloroform. He
miscalculated. Now no one can wake her.
Six days pass. Her fiancé arrives and goes
berserk. Miss E.'s doctor settles him down with a
healthy dose of opium. Meanwhile she moves not a
muscle. They bring in electric batteries and try to
shock her into life. No luck. Finally, on the sixth
day, Miss E. blinks awake. As she gains strength,
she recounts the long wandering dream she'd been in
during her coma.
At last she can be left safely. But our writer is
summoned one last time -- not to her bedside, but
to her wedding. While he offers no conclusion about
the use of chloroform, he does pull the groom aside
for one bit of advice: Never bury your bride, he
says, before I personally have written a death
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Anon. Recollections of a Physician: No. II --
Chloroform. The Columbian Lady's and Gentleman's
Magazine, Vol IX, May 1848, pp. 227-233.
For more on Chloroform, and its early use, see:
Typical illustration from the 1848 Columbian
. Note the foxing
staining) on the aged paper.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H.