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The Story of Anaesthesia: Life Would not Have Been Easy if Diethyl Ether Anaesthesia was not Successfully Demonstrated

Every year, World Anaesthesia Day is celebrated on October 16, marking the first successful demonstration of diethyl ether anaesthesia by W.T.G. Morton in 1846 at Massachusetts Hospital, Boston, where he allowed the surgeon to remove a large neck tumour from a young boy without screams and bites.

The surgeon crew declared it a victory, and so began the story of anaesthesia. Prior to this, surgery was extraordinarily painful, bloody, and dirty, and used to be the last resort. Surgeons were praised for speed, not for skill in the operation. It was against this background that anaesthesia was discovered. Of all the milestones and achievements in medicine, conquering pain must be one of the very few that have potentially affected every human being in the world. Since its discovery, surgeons have been able to perform more complex, time-consuming operations, saving more lives.

The anaesthesia journey over the last 175 years has been fascinating and promising for humankind. With the invention of ethereal vapours, masks, flexible pipelike rubber circuits, gases, and cylinders, general anaesthesia confirmed its place in the operation theatre. The introduction of local anaesthesia by Carl Koller gave a different dimension. The age-old arrow poison curare was re-introduced in 1942 by Griffith and Johnson to provide a relaxed operative field for the surgeons. Tracheal tubes and ventilators were devised to preserve and control breathing. Regional anaesthesia made its way wherein specific parts of the body were anaesthetised.

Subspecialties like obstetric anaesthesia has made the delivery process painless and less scary. Palliative care is a fast-growing and promising specialty where the last days of cancer patients are made painless and meaningful. Paediatric anaesthesia deals with newborns to teenagers. Cardiothoracic anaesthesia where in patient’s heart is deliberately stopped for some time during an operation and then restarted again. Telemedicine enables anaesthesiologists to share their knowledge in remote areas, be it an operation theatre or ICU. Anesthesiologists take the lead role in the ICU too. When the world was grappling with COVID-19 which took a toll on humanity, it was anaesthesiologists who were the front-line warriors, racing against death while serving COVID patients.

Technology has been complementary to anaesthesia, contributing to its evolution. There are gadgets to visualise the body structures, and measure consciousness, and ultrasound has revolutionised the field by adding more safety and guarantee of success in the procedures.

The role of an anaesthesiologist doesn’t end at the door of the theatre. They take care of the pain, breathe even after surgery, and assuring patients a normal life before they leave the hospital.

It is believed that an informed and alert profession can shape the coming age and guide its members to meaningful and impactful practice. The future is here, and their engagement with innovation will determine their share of its prosperity.


Ashwini 1

Author: Dr Ashwini Ramaswamy, Anaesthesia consultant


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