New Zealand Society of Anaesthetists (NZSA) – Level 1, Central House, 26 Brandon Street, Wellington 6011
04 494 0124 | nzsa@anaesthesia.nz

History of anaesthesia

Horace-WellsAnaesthesia today is the culmination of many earlier discoveries and events. Surgical procedures are not a recent development. The skeletal remains of our earliest ancestors – the European Neolithic man – display evidence of possible surgery with surgical burr holes in the head. It is likely that such an event was to let out evil spirits.

By the times of the Greeks and Romans, surgical procedures, albeit fairly minor, were taking place. In ancient India, surgery was well advanced with the development of surgical instruments and even plastic surgical procedures have been described. (The surgical reconstruction of an amputated nose by the use a rotational flap has been described.)

Around 900-1000 AD the Arabs in Andalusia were performing abdominal surgery. Islamic surgeons and physicians described many operations and medical procedures, including bladder stones and caesarean sections. The Islamic practice of medicine was a thousand years ahead of western medicine and much of what was claimed as new was a rediscovery of ancient techniques lost to the West.

A list of important dates

500 BC Opium analgesia described by Hippocrates
1544 Ether synthesised
1596 South American arrow poison described
1628 Harvey describes the circulation
1665 First IV injection of opium into a dog
1776 Mesmer describes hypnosis
1772 N2O discovered
1796 Moore compresses nerves to produce local anaesthesia
1829 Cloquet uses hypnosis for mastectomy
1847 First veterinary treatment using anaesthesia, at Veterinary College London
1848 First anaesthetic death. Hannah Greener aged 15 died after chloroform administration (she had had a toenail removed)
1853 Invention of the hypodermic syringe and needle
1860 Cocaine isolated
1863 Popularisation of the use of N20
1867 Prof Lister introduces antiseptic surgery
1884 Demonstration of the local anaesthetic properties of cocaine on the cornea
1894 Harvey Cushing advocated the use of anaesthetic record charts
1898 August Bier introduced “spinal anaesthesia”
1917 Boyle’s anaesthetic machine, a N2O and O2 machine, first described
1920 Magill and Rowbotham developed endotracheal anaesthesia
1929 Fleming discovers that the mould Penicillium notatum inhibits bacteria
1930 The circle absorption system introduced by Brian Sword
1932 Association of anaesthetists of Great Britain and Ireland formed
1934 Thiopentone popularised
Australian Society of Anaesthetists formed
1939-42 An ear oxygen meter developed and term oximeter coined
1940 Preparation of an active and concentrated form of penicillin described
1945 The American Society of Anaesthetists (ASA) formed
1942 Muscle relaxants introduced
1951 Halothane synthesised
1952 Faculty of RACS formed
Pin index system introduced
1973 Prototype pulse oximeter used clinically
1983 LMA use described
1984 Propofol in soya bean oil introduced
1987 First clinical use of desflurane