The advent of general anesthesia radically altered the surgical landscape. Prior to this, what today would be considered minor surgical procedures at that time caused tremendous pain and distress, and many surgeries could not even be considered due to the pain and danger involved for the patient. But who discovered general anesthesia?
Dr. Horace Wells (January 21, 1815-January 24, 1848) is generally credited as being the first person to demonstrate surgical treatment under general anesthesia. Wells, a dentist, had first become familiar with nitrous oxide (laughing gas) while seeing it used during a demonstration at a “laughing gas road show”. Recognizing the potential for this agent to alleviate pain from dental procedures, Wells began using it to perform “painless” dental surgeries. He was allowed to demonstrate his technique on a patient to the physicians at Massachusetts General Hospital in 1845, but the demonstration did not go well. Wells had not realized that patients varied in their response to laughing gas. On some it had little effect, and under its influence others could begin to act inappropriately. When his patient at this demonstration failed to respond to the gas as desired, he was ridiculed.
Later, Wells began to experiment extensively with nitrous oxide, ether, and chloroform as anesthetics—on himself. The frequent exposure to these agents affected him psychologically, and he began to act strangely. While jailed in New York City for assaulting another person, he committed suicide. Ironically, as that was taking place, the Paris Medical Society was publicly crediting him with having discovered of anesthetic gases!
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