Today it’s hard to imagine having an operation with no pain relief. But before the 1840s, major procedures such as amputating a leg were done without anaesthetics.

The introduction of general anaesthetics revolutionised surgery by making it possible for patients to be unconscious during an operation. This meant they no longer had to endure extreme pain, did not need to be held down and, of course, could not see what was going on. Surgeons could now operate more slowly (and carefully!) and carry out more complicated procedures.

After all three became unconscious for a time, James knew he was on to something.

Nitrous oxide (‘laughing gas’), discovered by Humphry Davy, was found to relieve pain. It had been used by dentists, but not by surgeons in 1844. The first surgical operation under general anaesthetic was carried out in Boston, America in 1846 by Dr John Warren. The patient was given ether and the operation was a total success – afterwards, he woke up and wondered if the surgical procedure had actually been done. Warren announced to his audience the immortal words, ‘Gentlemen, this is no humbug.’ Ether was soon being used for operations in Britain, but despite its success as an anaesthetic, there were a number of drawbacks. Ether is flammable and could easily catch fire in the candle-lit rooms of the 1800s. It can also affect patients’ throats and their breathing, which could be dangerous during an operation.

In 1847, Dr James Simpson discovered the anaesthetic properties of chloroform. The story goes that James tested it on himself and two of his colleagues after dinner one evening at his house in Edinburgh. After all three became unconscious for a time, James knew he was on to something. The use of chloroform as an anaesthetic soon expanded all over Europe. Soon, inhalers like these were being used. Sponges soaked in chloroform were placed in the glass container and the vapour breathed in through the tube. Chloroform was later linked to heart and liver failure, but both ether and chloroform were used until the 1930s when they were gradually phased out.

Did you know..?

Queen Victoria was one of the first women to use chloroform to relieve the pain of childbirth. It was given to her by Dr John Snow during the birth of her 8th and 9th children – Prince Leopold and Princess Beatrice.

Sources & acknowledgements

This object description and its related educational resources were researched and written by our team of historians and education specialists. For further information see the item’s home museum, gallery or archive, listed above. 

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This object is in the collection of National Museum of Scotland