Monday, February 7, 2011

Oil of Sweet Vitriol: Ether and Chloroform

Don't forget the comment contest: whoever leaves the most comments this months wins a prize. I'll tally March 1.

Today we’re going historical and looking at the two first common general anesthetics that were used: Ether and Chloroform. This is a shout out to Anne Love who posed a question in the comments section a couple of months back: What anesthesia was used in 1893? Does ether or chloroform have an odor?
Ether was discovered in 1275. It was first synthesized by German physician Valerius Cordus in 1540. He named it “oil of sweet vitriol” which likely gives a clue to its odor. Other sources report ether’s odor as pungent, sweet, nauseating and fruity.
The first use of ether as an anesthetic occurred in 1842 by Dr. Crawford Williamson Long who used it to remove tumors from the neck of patient James Venable in Jefferson, Georgia. You may also see references that ether was used at the Ether Dome by William Thomas Green Morton who was a dentist that assisted surgeon John Collins Warren who also used it to remove a neck tumor. Now, it is largely recognized that Long should be credited with its first use.
Ether’s main drawback was its flammability. When the advent of using cauterizing tools came to fruition, you can see how setting fire to one’s patient during surgery would be considered poor form on the part of the doctor.
Chloroform was discovered in 1831 by James Young Simpson, a Scottish gynecologist and obstetrician, and was found efficacious in 1847. Chloroform was used widely until it was determined to be toxic to the kidney and liver but I did find a short note that perhaps chloroform was the preferred anesthetic in England. Chloroform is reported to have a “pleasant, non-irritating odor and slightly sweet taste”.
These agents, most likely ether in the US, were in use until the mid 1950’s when the non-flammable anesthetic agent halothane was discovered.
Do you have a historical medical scene using ether or chloroform?
Frontier Medicine by David Dary


  1. Loved your post today. I had to do a bit of research on this very question a few months ago for a scene in my current WIP Sofi's Bridge. It's set in 1910, and my doctor hero has to perform emergency surgery on a the leg of a man who's fallen from a bridge. I asked my ER nurse daughter what would be a good bone to break in order for the doctor to need to do emergency surgery, and she suggested my patient break his femur. And I wrote in that my doctor used ether. Great post.

  2. Thanks for your comment Christine! Glad you enjoyed the post today.

  3. Open drop ether was pretty common even in the early 1960's. There were two types of ether-vinethene and ethyl ether. Vinethene worked faster and was given just prior to given ethyl ether. 57% of all patients who received ethyl ether vomited. It had a strong pungent odor.The history of the use of ether is quite interesting, especially the controversy over who discovered it.
    I had the opportunity to smell ether and chloroform anesthetics when I took a job in a hospital in Tennessee. They still stored them in the anesthesia supply closet. That was many years ago.
    My father related a story about ether. Ether is flammable but unlike some gaseous agents is heavy and tends to settle lower to the floor.Apparently a spark occurred and ignited the ether which was like a selfpropelling flame which left the OR room went through another room and returned through a room which connected the two OR's. Apparently the patient was unhurt, but there were some frightened OR workers.

    Cholorform was very rapid acting and unlike ethyl ether had a pleasant smell sort of like violets. It was administered to Queen Victoria during child birth.

    The chemists who discovered these agents, as well as the people who used them had a very colorful history

  4. Ruby, thanks so much for all the additional information! The story your father relayed about ether is so interesting. I know I'd be scared to death if a fire erupted on the floor in the OR I was working in and spread through several rooms and then came back. I bet they talked about that for a long time...

  5. Jordyn,
    Thanks so much for posting. My heroine is a female doctor working in rural Wisconsin, 1894. This will be helpful for my scene. Thanks for the links and sources too.
    My mother's nursing shoes had special soles to decrease static electricity, now I know why.
    To answer your question on my FB page, I'm a family nurse practitioner.
    Thanks for your time and effort.
    My next question: do you have online sources for pioneer medicine. I know that the average pioneer would have had a home remedy book to look up illnesses and treatments. I think I finally found a source online, but would be interested if you know of more online links.
    Anne Love

  6. Anne, That's interesting about your mother's shoes. I had a recent conversation with my nurse manager who said nurses weren't allowed to wear nylon stockings in the OR for the fear of static electricity, too. So crazy.

    I've been reading the book Frontier Medicine by David Dary as research for this blog and he does mention some specific tomes. One was by Dr. John C gunn of Knoxville, Tennessee called Gunn's Domestic Medicine also known as Poor Man's Friend in the Hours of Affliction, Pain and Sickness. It was published in 1830. According to Dary it went through almost seventy printings between 1830-1920 which covers your time frame. I'd start with the title of this book as a jumping off point.

    Hope this helps Anne.

  7. Jordyn, thanks for this information. Your blog is so helpful. I'm writing a story set in 1936 around a natural disaster. I'm trying to brush up on my medical research and facts!

  8. The main character in my WIP is a nurse. A surgery does take place in it, and they used chloroform. It's in the mid-1800s, so it would've been in practice, from what I read. I had to decide between chloroform and ether...then finally settled on the chloroform. For all you experts out there - would they have used that in America in the west duirng the mid-1800s? From reading this post, I think they would've...but just wanted to check!

  9. Christy and Katy,

    I'm glad you're finding the blog useful. Don't forget to subscribe or follow the blog (where I can see your photo on the sidebar) as I do surprise give-aways to these groups.

    Katy, I think you'd have some lattitude as a writer to decide what you wanted to do though I did read one reference that said ether was more popular in the US.

  10. Hmm...Okay, thanks Jordyn for your advice! I'll certainly being doing some more research!

    ~ Katy