Ether



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:

anheleta
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Mar 12, 2008 @ 11:11 am
helped a whole lot...with my project at scholl... got an a+.. thanks so much!
Boj
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Jan 7, 2009 @ 3:15 pm
Very helpful... contains much more detail and knowledge than that of wikipedia.
C
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Feb 4, 2009 @ 2:02 am
Answers many questions...wonderful article...extremely informative
Emmanuel
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Nov 4, 2009 @ 7:07 am
Well detailed and useful information. Helped me alot.Thanks.
kianne vonh bulos (ph)
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Jan 25, 2010 @ 3:15 pm
nice articles.helps me to do my reporting , using powerpoint. thanks
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Aug 27, 2010 @ 12:12 pm
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
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Nov 25, 2010 @ 9:09 am
Helpful & interesting, thanks.

Typo in the paragraph about Morton contacting Warren: Did you mean 1846?
Anthony
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Feb 17, 2011 @ 8:20 pm
Could you send me the name of the author of this article and any further information
regarding its publication? Thank you.
Fairfield Rochester
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Apr 21, 2011 @ 5:17 pm
This was exceptionally helpful for my chemistry project.
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May 8, 2011 @ 5:05 am
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
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May 22, 2011 @ 1:01 am
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?
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Jun 6, 2011 @ 7:07 am
nice article with brief history an information abut origin of anaesthesia
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Jun 13, 2011 @ 6:18 pm
Are you sure the 1946 date for Morton contacting Warren is correct?
Jacki
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Jul 13, 2011 @ 9:21 pm
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.
Howard
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Jun 12, 2012 @ 9:21 pm
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
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Mar 16, 2013 @ 11:11 am
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
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Mar 16, 2013 @ 1:13 pm
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
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Aug 9, 2014 @ 4:16 pm
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.

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