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History of Medicine – the development of anaesthetics Essay.

History of Medicine – the development of anaesthetics Essay.


Anaesthetics were important in the history of surgery because without the problem of pain, patients were more willing to have operations to treat their illnesses and more operations were carried out. This meant that surgeons could develop more experience. Moreover, because patients were no longer wriggling about in agony and having to be held down all the time, surgeons did not have to operate so quickly and consequently they could spend longer on the operations without making mistakes. This led to more accurate operations. In addition this also resulted in more complicated operations being carried out and surgeons gained more knowledge about difficult operations.History of Medicine – the development of anaesthetics Essay.


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However, the death rate was still high because until Joseph Lister developed antiseptics in the 1860s, only one of the problems of surgery had been solved. In fact the death rate actually increased because more complicated operations resulted in surgeons going deeper into the body and yet filthy conditions still existed and germs got into the wounds. This meant that many more people died of infections. In addition surgeons were still not sure about the dosage of the chemicals and how much chloroform to give patients. A young girl called Hanner Greener died from an overdose of chloroform whilst having her toenail removed. Furthermore, no one had yet solved the problem of what to do when patients lost a lot of blood. This meant that blood transfusions could not be carried out until Karl Lanndsteiner discovered blood groups in 1901.History of Medicine – the development of anaesthetics Essay.


1. Surgeons had always thought that speed was their most important skill. Now, all of a sudden, it did not matter at all.

2. Hannah Greener had an operation to remove a toenail with chloroform as the anaesthetic. She was the first person to die as a result of chloroform. This scared surgeons.

3. Chloroform had not been properly tested; no one knew if there were going to be any long-term consequences. Surgeons were unsure what dose to give to different patients.

4. Since chloroform left patients unconscious, surgeons spent longer carrying out more complicated operations. This meant there was more chance of the patient getting infection and dying. This meant that surgeons lost confidence in chloroform.

5. There was religious opposition to anaesthetics. In 1849 a letter was published in The Lancet (which was a magazine for surgeons) which said, “The infliction of pain has been invented by Almighty God. Pain may even be considered a blessing…”

However, when Queen Victoria used chloroform during the birth of her child all opposition to anaesthetics was doomed. From that point on it became an accepted surgical practice.History of Medicine – the development of anaesthetics Essay.

Lister was one of the greatest surgeons of the nineteenth century. He had researched gangrene and infection and was interested in applying science to medicine. He had read Pasteur’s work on the Germ Theory in 1861 – few British doctors had bothered to do this as it was originally only published in French. When he read this he worked out that if he could find something that killed the “floating particles? then he might stand a chance of preventing infection in patients.

Lister had seen carbolic spray used to treat sewage. He experimented with spraying a fine mist of carbolic spray over the wound during surgery. This limited infection. He then followed this by carefully bandaging the wound so that it would heal and not develop gangrene. His first operation was on a young boy’s knee and the carbolic acid soaked bandages were kept on for four days. There was no infection. Lister’s own figures showed that death rates due to infection for his patients went from 46% before he started using carbolic spray to only 15% after he started using it. In 1867, Lister published his ideas and results to show other surgeons the value of using carbolic spray. Listerine mouthwash is named after him as is the hospital in Stevenage which shows he was considered to be important and worth remembering.History of Medicine – the development of anaesthetics Essay.

The most common sorts of surgical operations in the 19th century were amputations, where an arm or leg had to be cut off. This was fairly straightforward procedure but extremely painful and many people died from blood loss or from infection. Until the mid-19th century there were no anaesthetics. Patients might be given alcohol, or some form of opium from the poppy to help ease the pain, but people were often fully conscious during an operation and could feel everything. Because operations were so painful and there were no anaesthetics, they needed to be carried out as quickly as possible and assistants were needed to keep the patient still. Complex operations that took a long time or went deep into the body were impossible and surgery, tended to be seen as a last resort.

Opposition to anaesthetics came from a range of groups as well as for a number of reasons. Religion played a part with some people saying that pain was God’s intention, whilst the Head of the Army Medical Corps objected to anaesthetics on the grounds that he preferred to see a man scream that to slumber during an operation. Some Doctors and Surgeons opposed anaesthetics at first saying that it was too risky. They did have a point at first with a number of patients dying when dosages could be far too high, but as time went on it became safe enough for even Queen Victoria to use anaesthetics during childbirth,

Overall, I think that the opposition of anaesthetics was important and without this, many of the ‘high tech’ developments in the 20th century would not have been possible. However I think this was only one of the key steps and that the development of antiseptics was more important. This led to a greater reduction in the death rate from people dying from infection. In conclusion, until the final problem of providing replacement blood was solved, surgery was still a very risky procedure.History of Medicine – the development of anaesthetics Essay.

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