Anesthesia: Surgical Miracle or Scientific Hoax?

by Axel Wood

May 3, 1851

PORTLAND, OR – There is no words that can describe how horrific, painful surgeries can be. Even to a strong man, the moment when the surgical instrument tearing the skin, going inside the flesh, and bringing infinite pain can be worse than being dead. Moreover, if the surgery is successfully executed, it does not guarantee the success of a patient’s recovery. Sometimes, physicians find the pus in the incision after a few days of a patient’s surgery, which quickly leads to death in a matter of days; and the cause is a mystery.1 Despite the pain and high death rates, surgery is still being needed as a removal treatment for many diseases. A brand new chemical and medical concept – anesthesia, was found. It promises to fix the problems of pain in surgery forever; but words in the air are also saying that it can be hoax being made up by mad scientists.302FFCBB00000578-0-image-a-33_1452856951093

Surgery is painful, but yet there had not been a lot of significant surgical advancements that can fully alleviate the pain, despite several attempts for thousand of years around the world. In China, some ancient documents report that Chinese surgeons from the early ages had known how to use herbal extracts and cannabis to make the patients numb before surgeries.2 From the seventeenth century, opium and similar sleep-inducing chemicals were also used before surgeries. And recently, a surgeon from Napoleon’s army learnt the new use of ice to numb the patient; this method is fairly effective and adopted by many other surgeons. But logically speaking, icing and inducing numb are only effective on the very outer layer of skin, but not working with deep, internal organs. There are “major” surgeries such as bladder stones removal, or diseased tissue removal.3 Those methods are still not good enough to fix the pain problem, but what about anesthesia?

Oliver Wendell Holmes, a well-known physicians invented the world anesthesia two years ago. In Greek, the word means “lack of sensation.” 4 Now, anesthesia is becoming a new medical term describing chemicals that can bring unconsciousness to the patient, which of course should be essential in surgeries. The development of anesthesia was started with the discovery of nitrous oxide in London, 1775 by Joseph Priestly. Nitrous oxide, also known as N2O, is a colorless gas, flammable, and soluble in water and alcohol.5 Priestly announced the gas to be poisonous; but Humphry Davy (1778-1829), an English chemist, dared to smell it and found absolute euphoria!6 Many volunteers also tried the gas, and most of them laughed uncontrollably under the effect of the gas. After several observations, Davy wrote a lot of details about his experience with nitrous oxide. In one of his experiments, his volunteer wrote this reflection: “Increased muscular action was accompanied by very pleasurable feelings, and a strong desire to continue the inspiration. On removing the bag from my mouth, I laughed, staggered, and attempted to speak, but stammered exceedingly, and was utterly unable to pronounce some words.” 7 However, the gas never gained a lot of notice afterwards, except of being an “laughing gas” for entertaining purposes, until recent experimentations of Horace Wells.

During an exhibition of nitrous oxide a few years ago in Connecticut, the late dentist Horace Wells discovered that one of his friends, who was trying the gas, did not feel pain despite that he accidentally bled himself during the exhibition.8 As a dentist, Wells must have tried to seek new ways to make his patient less painful during tooth removal. Hence, within a few days, this dentist conducted a few experiments and stated in one of his report: “I accordingly procured some nitrous oxide gas, resolving to make the first experiment on myself, by having a tooth extracted, which was done without any painful sensations. I then performed the same operation for twelve or fifteen others, with the like results.” 9 With his discovery, Well showed promised to become one of the most influential scientist ever in the history: the first man to cure the pain! But people soon claimed that it was a hoax. During one of his exhibitions later on, a patient, who was supposed to have his tooth removed, cried out despite he was inhaled with nitrous oxide. There was no clear explanations to the failure of the experiment, but the consequence was clear. The bright career of Horace Wells soon shattered, and soon later he ended his life at the age 33. Rumors said that at the end of his life, Wells was actually addicted to the nitrous oxide himself afterwards, and the gas brought hallucinations as a side effect.

After his death, people raised a lot of questions about nitrous oxide. We have seen that anesthesia can bring unconsciousness, which is necessary during surgeries, but we actually don’t know a lot about this new branch of chemical. Firstly, how much of anesthesia is enough to be inhaled? Despite of being known as a “laughing gas,” nitrous oxide is undoubtedly poisonous if it is consumed too much. Moreover, what are the side effect of anesthesia? Wells might have died of being addicted to nitrous oxide, but some people also said that beside the hallucinations, the gas also brought him depression, which could be the reason Wells ended his life. There are so many unknowns about nitrous oxide even it shows potentials. Anesthesia might be a hoax, but humanity can still hope until one day, they don’t feel pain during surgeries.



  1. Alexandra Black, Medicine: the definitive illustrated history (London: Dorling Kindersley Limited, 2016), 154.
  2. Jie Jack Li, Laughing Gas, Viagra, and Lipitor: The Human Stories behind the Drugs We Use (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 188.
  3. Deborah Brunton, Health and Wellness in the 19th Century (Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 2014), 117.
  4. Li, Laughing Gas, 189.
  5. “Nitrous Oxide.” The Columbia Encyclopedia (6th ed. Columbia University Press, 2016).
  6. Li, Laughing Gas, 190.
  7. Humphry Davy, Researches, Chemicals And Philosophical; Chiefly Concerning (London: Biggs and Cottle, 1800), 498.
  8. Li, Laughing Gas, 191.
  9. Horace Wells, A History Of The Discovery Of The Application Of Nitrous Oxide Gas, Ether, And Other Vapors, To Surgical Operations  (Hartford, CT: J. Gaylord Wells, 1847), 6. 

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