The most widely recognized use of a general anesthetic is considered to be in 1804 when Japanese physician Seishu Hanaoka performed a partial mastectomy on a 60-year-old female patient suffering from breast cancer. He utilized a mix of herbs, namely thorn apple and monkshood, that was taken internally (by drinking). The patient did survive the operation, but unfortunately passed away about 6 months post-op. Hanoaka trained over 2,000 students on his anesthesia technique, but his chosen method did not reach outside of Japan’s borders.
In the early 19th century, ether, a flammable and volatile liquid, was the first anesthetic to be widely accepted for use as general anesthesia for surgeries. It seemed to be more of an intoxicant though, and gained the favor of those opting for a substitution to whiskey or other alcoholic drinks, having so-called “ether frolics” instead of binge drinking. Medical and dental professionals who were in attendance at these gatherings in the 1840s realized that the sensation of pain was not felt when people were under the influence of ether. As many medical researchers of the time did, William Morton, a dentist in Boston, used ether on himself in experiments, and his findings led him to the conclusion that it would be a good option for his patients.
Nitrous oxide was already in use by this time, but that option and ether were not as quickly instituted by surgeons, most likely because dental patients didn’t need as prolonged relief and both substances were seen as safe and easier to administer in smaller doses.
Morton, in 1846, was on hand at Massachusetts General Hospital to participate in the inaugural display of ether being used as a general anesthetic. The surgery was successful and shortly thereafter, American and European surgeons realized the potential of ether to be used in their work. Ether was then pioneered by a Midwife Professor (James Young Simpson) to be used during childbirth. He also made the discovery of chloroform, which was given to Queen Victoria by Dr. John Snow as she gave birth to her two children, earning it the royal seal of approval. Chloroform was easier to use, so English surgeons made the shift to it, while American surgeons stayed with ether, as they believed it had fewer risks. Thankfully, by the turn of the 20th century, the use of general anesthesia enjoyed (as did patients who received it) acceptance.