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Narratives

Exhibition Label : Nuffield Department of Anaesthetics display (April - August 2008) - general introduction

From Intoxication to Anaesthesia

During the early nineteenth century people
began to recognise the intoxicating and soporific
effects of certain chemicals. Showmen made use
of ether and nitrous oxide on their audiences for
entertainment, and people went to laughing-gas
and ether parties. By the 1840s doctors came to
realise that these same chemicals could be used
in medical and dental operations to reduce the
suffering of their patients.

The first successful public demonstration of an anaesthetic was in America in 1846.
News of the success quickly spread and soon doctors and dentists in Europe were
using ether and chloroform to anaesthetise their patients during operations. However,
the use of anaesthetics was not without controversy. Some doctors worried
about the long-term effects on the body, and the chemicals could be very dangerous.
Chloroform, in particular, had a large number of fatalities associated with its use
throughout the nineteenth century.

Nevertheless, the use of anaesthetics continued to
grow. Nitrous oxide was increasingly used in dentistry
from the late 1860s onwards, and its popularity
as an effective anaesthetic grew following the
development of pressurised gas canisters in the late
nineteenth century. It has only been in the second
half of the twentieth century that new developments
have superseded these traditional anaesthetics.

All of the objects in this display have been donated by the
Nuffield Department of Anaesthetics, University of Oxford

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