Ether is a colorless, transparent, and very volatile (readily vaporizable) liquid. It has a characteristic odor and is highly flammable. Ether is used as a general anesthetic for surgery.

Ether (from the Latin "aether" and the Greek "eithr," or "the upper and purer air") is believed to have been first synthesized about 1540 by German botanist and chemist Valerius Cordus (1515-1544), who called his discovery "sweet oil of vitriol" and praised its medicinal properties. Paracelsus (1493-1541), a contemporary of Valerius, noted that the "oil" induced sleep in chickens when added to their feed. Frobenius (Froben) named the liquid "ethereal spirits" or "ether" in 1730.

History of Surgical Anesthesia

Only a few surgical procedures were available before the mid-1800s. Little was known about diseases or how to prevent infection. There was also no satisfactory anesthesia available to put the patient into a deep sleep and allow doctors to perform unhurried operative procedures. Certain means of reducing surgical pain had been available since ancient times, however. These included such drugs as alcohol, hashish, and opium derivatives.

Also available were rudimentary physical methods of producing analgesia (insensitivity to pain). These included packing a limb in ice or applying a tourniquet. Another technique used, although an extreme one, was to induce unconsciousness, either by inflicting a blow to the head or by strangulation. Most often, however, the patient was simply restrained by physical force, thus making surgery a last resort.

As more and more was learned about anatomy and surgical procedures, the need to find safe methods to prevent pain became more urgent. With the advent of professional dentistry, this need became even more urgent because of the sensitivity of the mouth and gums. Indeed, dentists were largely responsible for the introduction of both nitrous oxide and diethyl ether.

Nitrous Oxide and Anesthesia

In 1772 the English chemist Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) discovered nitrous oxide gas. Soon people, especially medical students, began to whiff this "laughing gas" at "revels" for social amusement and for the euphoria ("high") it produced. Ether "frolics," in which participants inhaled ether, also became popular in the United States.

Joseph Priestley discovered nitrous oxide gas, a close associate of ether, in 1772.
Joseph Priestley discovered nitrous oxide gas, a close associate of ether, in 1772.

Dr. Crawford W. Long (1815-1878) of Georgia may have been the first person to apply his social experiences with ether to surgery. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Crawford is said to have observed a participant at a frolic take a heavy fall but show no indication of pain. In 1842 Long performed three minor surgeries using sulfuric ether, a form of ether with chemical properties similar to those of diethyl ether. Long apparently did not realize the medical significance of what he had done and failed to publicize his discovery. He published his results only after anesthesia had been hailed as a major breakthrough.

Attention next returned to nitrous oxide. Horace Wells (1815-1848), a Hartford, Connecticut, dentist, learned about the effects of nitrous oxide in 1844. He decided to test the gas by having one of his own teeth removed while under the influence of the gas. He was delighted with the results and soon began using the gas on his patients. He also told his friend and former partner, William T. G. Morton (1819-1868), a student at Harvard Medical School, about his discovery.

Morton was interested in the possibilities of anesthesia but began to look for a more potent agent than nitrous oxide. He began experimenting with sulfuric ether. Pleased with the results in his dental practice, he contacted Dr. John C. Warren (1778-1856) of Harvard University in 1946 and arranged for a public demonstration of surgery without pain. News of this event spread rapidly, and a new era for surgery began. Oliver Wendell Holmes later coined the term anesthesia to describe the condition brought on by ether.

The knowledge of ether as an anesthetic spread rapidly. The medical establishment and the public quickly and gratefully accepted the use of ether inhalation for painless surgery. Within months, surgery using ether anesthesia was being performed in England. In Germany Johann Friedrich Dieffenbach (1795-1847), a pioneer in plastic surgery, wrote: "The wonderful dream that pain has been taken away from us has become reality. Pain, the highest consciousness of our earthly existence, the most distinct sensation of the imperfection of our body, must now bow before the power of the human mind, before the power of ether vapor."

Other advances in anesthesia soon followed. In 1847 Russian Nicolai Ivanovich Pirogoff (1810-1881) devised a method of administering ether vapor via the rectum. Marc Dupuy investigated the same technique that year in Paris, France. In 1915 American surgeon George Crile began combining local anesthetics with ether inhalation to block pain impulses more completely.

User Contributions:

helped a whole lot...with my project at scholl... got an a+.. thanks so much!
Very helpful... contains much more detail and knowledge than that of wikipedia.
Answers many questions...wonderful article...extremely informative
Well detailed and useful information. Helped me alot.Thanks.
kianne vonh bulos (ph)
nice articles.helps me to do my reporting , using powerpoint. thanks
I am interested in who wrote researched this topic and some of the resources available that talk more about procedures using anesthesia in surgery
David Strange
Helpful & interesting, thanks.

Typo in the paragraph about Morton contacting Warren: Did you mean 1846?
Could you send me the name of the author of this article and any further information
regarding its publication? Thank you.
Fairfield Rochester
This was exceptionally helpful for my chemistry project.
In 1950 i recall having my tonsils removed, I was 7 years old and recall a mask being put over my nose and mouth and a liquid (Ether?) dropped onto it, I was asked to count to ten, but did not get very far !!! this was at Harrow on the Hill Hospital, could this be true ?, regards John
I remember a movie once where in a famous Tenor, Enrico Caruso played by Mario Lanza, but that isnt the question. In the movie Caruso at the end of his career had afailing voice and was using ETHER as a way of being able to control the vocal chords keeping them stronger hence being able to sing for longer periods of time. Is that done any more?
nice article with brief history an information abut origin of anaesthesia
Are you sure the 1946 date for Morton contacting Warren is correct?
Hi Simon, no it can not be, Morton died in 1868 and Warren in 1856, if that is correct as well. I gather by research that it is 1846 per timeline.
I haven't been able to reference the use of ether as an inhaled anesthetic during the 20th century, so I'll recount my personal experience. Sometime in the latter half of the 1940's I broke my arm and was rushed to Queens Hospital in Honolulu. After treatment for shock, I was told that I needed to go to surgury where they would put me to sleep with ether. They said it would smell sweet and to take a deep breath. Terrible nightmare and a constant buzzing sound followed. When I awoke, I was violently nauseous. Were they still using ether in the 1940'S? A followup surgury was said to be with another gas which had no ill efects.
May Anne
Howard, yes, ether was used in the 40s, 50s, and 60s. As a child I went to Shriner's hospital and had over 20 surgeries from age 2 up to age 14. They used ether for most of my early surgeries and I remember it well. It was a brutal anesthesia and I wouldn't wish it on anyone! The odor of ether is horrendous and having it put on your face with a mask makes one feel as though they're being smothered. (which this article does not mention... nor does it tell of the effects ether can have on liver function.) My childhood records have 3 or 4 WARNINGS to remind future surgeons that my liver function was dangerous and that surgeries should be stopped for at least one year. Later I was deemed to have a reaction to ether and something new was used... that was in the late 60s. Anesthesia was brutal before then. We were held down, tied down, and smothered with a mask that had an unbelievable odor that cannot be described. Your first instinct is to hold your breath, but you can only do that for long until you have to take a deep breath and then the worst nightmares of your life flash before your mind, for what feels like an eternity. Also, you wake up nauseated for days and days and still have the memories and odor in your senses. However, it's better than having your skin, flesh, muscles and bones cut into and manipulated while awake! Now that would be more than a nightmare, to me! Modern day anesthesia is a breeze... we've come a long way!
Amen for that!
May Anne
By the way... I think they still use a form of ether during surgery under General Anesthesia, they just use another IV drug to put us to sleep first then apply the ether... at least that is what I was told at the last operation that I had under General Anesthesia which was in 1990s. I have since had one last surgery with Local Anesthesia and what a difference that is!

With local, there is none of that grogginess or nausea for days after surgery as with General. If you ever have a choice take the new Local Anesthesia. You heal much quicker and feel much better afterwards.
Mary D
I had a tonsillectomy in my early childhood in the very early '50s. Must have used ether on me. I was told it was Chinese perfume. I think I can still kind of remember the smell. Don't have particularly bad memories about it though. I've been under general anesthesia four times in the ensuing years. Worst of that is the nausea after. Ugh! Especially if it's day surgery and they want to get you up and moving and out by 6:00 p.m. Just let me sleep it off. Don't bother me.
Good article! Thank you!

Just a note: there's a typo in the 3rd paragraph below Joseph Priestley's photo (the paragraph that begins: "Morton was interested in the possibilities." In the 3rd sentence of the paragraph, it says that Dr. Morton contacted Dr. Morris in 1946, but that's the typo . . . it should read 1846.
I have had suffocation anxiety for as long as I can remember. When I was seeing a counselor in my 40's, I realized that I had surgery in 1952 when I was four
years old. I remembered being strapped down and a mask put on my face, then feeling like I was smothering. My mother confinrmed that I had two surgeries,
one when I was 3 months (my poor parents!), which I was told about, since it left a long abdominal scar, and another surgery for a growth on the back of my head
when four. I was researching ether and came upon these comments. Very helpful and interesting!
Oh how I do remember undergoing surgeries in the late 50's. A cone was put over my mouth and nose as the surgical nurse dripped ether on the mesh while being told to count backwards from 100. The odor was horrendous. I was scarred as hell and always woke up vomiting for a couple of days after. Terrible memory even to this day!
Absolutely they were still using ether at least into the 60s, because i had it for tooth removal surgeries in 1964 at age 7. It was one of the most traumatic events of my life. Horrible hallucinogenic dreams i can still remember, and waking already vomiting. The second time they couldn't use the mask because just the sight of it made me gag, so they put an IV in and injected it with a needle that was so big it should have been for a horse. Same horrible result. When I went back to have the stitches out I walked in straight to the wastebasket and vomited before they even touched me. I am 58 now and to this day they can't even mention any kind of gas or I Will run out of the building. Anything sweet and cold smelling triggers anxiety. I am praying I never need general anesthesia again, I would rather be sawed in half wide awake. I talked to one other person who's had it, he feels the same.
This article is great! It was very helpful and interesting.
Had tonsils out in 1962 via ether. I woke up during the procedure!

WAS smothered asleep again. Nausea was beyond description. Better than being awake, but what a nightmare
ellen leach
I suffered a broken nose in a car accident at age 9, it was 1955. they put a mask on me and I breathed in this horrible smell, then a hideous nightmare , remember it was monsters roller skating in a circle and I could not get away, plus this terrible noise. in the beginning when I fell asleep and saw these creatures it looked familiar like I had gone thru this before, I had my tonsils out at age 2 perhaps that was what I remembered and they gave me ether then also. I would not wish it on anyone, thank God they use laughing gas and give a shot when I have a procedure done
Angele Ortega
My mom told me that when I was born they used chloroform via a mask to decrease the pain. She said she had little choice in 1952. She pleaded with the doctor not to use forceps if I was slow coming out. She believed that forceps caused brain damage. I read that a high percentage of American adults are damaged from there use on tender skulls.

Are there people out there with memories of what happened at hospitals in the US in the 1950's.
Ralph Layman
I had my tonsils removed when I was about 3 years old (1957). I can still remember quite vividly (at 64 years old) that cone being placed over my nose and the smell of the ether.
Virginia Panek
I had several surgeries with ether when I was a child. I had polyps in my ear and then many surgeries besides that. Without fail, all the time I was under, I was falling in a black hole, and green dragon heads with red tones went round and round and round me. I hated being put under, and one time when my Dr. Was going to remove packing from my ear after a surgery, and planning to use ether, I begged him not to put me to sleep.
He agreed but if I made one peep, he would use it.
I took the pain.
It was the worst experience I had as a child.
For most of my life I have been extremely claustrophobic. I had a minor surgery and as I was being put to sleep all of a sudden a image of this item was over my face and a unusual smell came to my awareness. I felt so overwhelmed and suffocated but then I went to sleep.After surgery and when I was recovering I remembered my feeling that I had before I was put under and it dawned on me that's why I became claustrophobic. I was five years old when I had my tonsils removed and was put to sleep by ether, it's amazing how an incident like that can affect your whole life.
My sister had her tonsils out in the 1960s.

She had a terrible experience with the gas they gave her to fall asleep.
Janet, I had my tonsils removed in the late 1940's and ether was used. I still have periodic feelings of claustrophobia, of being held down! I read an article recently (sorry, I don't have any information about now!). A noted authority of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) said he had come across several of his patients who developed similar PTSD experiences after having surgery with ether! I've done some googling, but can find the article. Maybe someone else can find it?
There is treatment that I'm looking into that has been shown to be helpful with PTSD. It's called Eye-Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR).
If you're suffering similar symptoms, you might want to check this out!
ellen leach
Subhan, was given ether also ,pnce at age 2 removal of tonsils and adenoids, and at age 9 to fix my broken nose. It was horrible the smell and horrible nightmares. I also have bad claustrophobia, and cannot be held down, I panic . Its most likely from being held down and given that hideous ether, brutal. we all seem to have something in common, I can relate to all of you.
sue wilkins
Hi I just found out that in the 1960's my mum and doctor used ether on me to help me sleep mum was getting a lot complaints about me crying and screaming what would have been the procedure back then many thanks?
What if they used it today would it hurt someone or would it be helpfull
I was another that had ether as a child. I had 8 eye surgeries with ether at Military Hospitals beginning at 3 years old to 8 years old.
It was terrible... I am interested in knowing if there is any link between having been given ether multiple times as a child and developing Fibromyalgia, Chronic Fatique Syndrome and or MS.
I had 3 eye surgeries plus tonselictomy from about age 2 til 5. I dreaded the mask of ether coming down on my face because I knew, after the first surgery, that I would experience scary hallucinations and be extremely nauseous when I woke up. This was in the 1940s. Like Linda I’m wondering if there are any health issues that can come up years after the he use of ether.
Tromis Urzan
Chucked into the ephemeral ether the milky night, with black choice with white...Fust c.1980

I was told I was given ether as a child for a tonsillectomy (early 60's). I don't remember the smell. I do remember feeling like I was upside down and felt dizzy watching and alternating orange and black colors swirling around my head. I'm OK now :)
Had appendectomy in a rural hospital in Ga. in 1963 and remember the dreams and violent illness upon by awakening.My face was scratched badly after I awoke during surgery and struggled with the nurses and drs.To this day the smell of starting fluid gives me the heaves.
I had many surgeries beginning at one week old. I clearly remember ether and recognize the smell around auto mechanic garages. I don't mind the smell, had no nausea or trauma associated with it either. One of the lucky ones I suppose. I've woken up four times with later anesthesias and that was disturbing.
I had ether at the dentist when I was 8 at the dentist 1959 I still have vivid memories swirling colors it was awesome lol
Debbie mack
Hello!im trying to figure out if ether was the horrific anesthesia I had in 1967-70.i distinctly remember a clear glass cylinder with pinkish beads in it as well(related?).I wonder if the gas,whatever it was traveled thru the glass cylinder with beads.I remember being nauseated for days!.Anyone know what type of gas it was?
Terry Kimsey
In 1965, at the age of two, I had my tonsils, and adenoids removed and tubes placed in my ears. I remember something like a kitchen strainer being placed over my nose and mouth and it felt like a liquid or perhaps a very cold gas came through the strainer. It felt like I was drowning. I remember a very foreign, pungent smell. It was horrible, but then I fell asleep and was very sick for quite a while when I woke up. I had to have the whole thing repeated, six years later, at the age of eight, in 1971, but they used something different that had no unpleasant side effects before, or after surgery.
I can't believe I've found you here. If only I'd known there were others who went through what I did. I've felt alone all these years, with no one to understand, and probably shaming myself to avoid threatening situations, like the back seat of two-door cars, and other restricted spaces. I think I'd rather die than get in an MRI machine! My tonsillectomy was in 1955 (age 8). They gave me ether, and told me it would be fun (wear a cowboy mask and get to blow bubbles). Little did I know what was about to happen - a trauma that led to a lifetime of fear, claustrophobia, and panic attacks. Those few seconds left me handicapped, but not hopeless. Since 1966 I've relied on God to help me through the challenges. Thanks for helping me. I won't forget you. This has been like going to a support group!

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic:

Ether forum