Skip to main content

Polite Society- Anesthesia in the Victorian Era

Medicine is such an interesting topic and I could easily make an entire series out of exploring what medicine was like throughout the ages, but that would be more like a book than a blog. In fact, just exploring one era would yield a whole books-worth of information, so instead I present to you a week of medically-related incidents through time.

Today we begin with the topic that led me to first examine the medicine and treatments of past ages; anesthesia. Pain is universal and the desire to lessen pain and suffering led early man to begin performing surgery, but this was fraught with peril even if the operation was a success because the trauma to the body from the stress and sensation of surgery could be overwhelming. The ancient Greeks used herbal mixtures to lessen the pain of surgery but this could not rightly be called an anesthetic. The word "Anesthesia" is Greek, meaning "without sensation", but the term was not coined until the poet and physician Oliver Wendall Holmes suggested it in 1846.

Holmes was responding to an amazing new technique he'd witnessed in Boston, when on the 16th of October a dentist named William Thomas Green Morton administered inhaled ether to a patient who then had a tumor painlessly removed from his neck. Prior to this some plant-based tropane alkaloids (opium, atropine) had been used, but they were very difficult to standardize and could easily overdose and kill a patient. In 1859 cocaine first reached the market where it was enthusiastically endorsed by none other than Sigmund Freud, who thought that it would help to wean people off of morphine.

Just after the discovery of inhaled ether anesthesia, chloroform was also developed in November of 1847. It's popularity grew rapidly after John Snow administered it to Queen Victoria in 1853 during the birth of Prince Leopold; but it quickly proved difficult to control and the first death attributed to chloroform anesthesia followed in January of 1848. This left morphine and cocaine and its derivatives as the chief forms of anesthesia through the turn of the century.


Popular posts from this blog

Italian Renaissance Hairstyles

In keeping with my last post on Italian Renaissance costume I thought we would take a look at something we didn't touch much on; hairstyles. They were extremely varying; up and down, braided, netted, entwined with silks and ribbons, even pearls, and, of course, dyed, bleached, and curled. The only thing in somewhat short supply seems to be hats, and really who would want to cover up what you had spent so much time constructing?

Occasionally a small cap, or scuffia, was worn either with side curls, or with most of the hair stuffed up underneathe:-

Another notable hair decoration was the reta, or hairnet. Some of these were beaded, some woven in decorative patterns, and some left very simple.

Under and around these ornamentations, or even without them, hair was often braided or crimped.
There was the simple modesty of a veil, if you felt the need to cover up... Or, if blending into the background wasn't your thing, there were big turbans, or simply huge ones. 

And, of course, the…


How Our Ancestors Slept

As someone who wakes up during the night feeling frustratingly refreshed...and then struggles to rise in the morning, I found this article to be a kind of vindication. Apparently the way we sleep has changed. For more information you can visit the link here.