WSJ Historically Speaking: The Quest for Unconsciousness: A Brief History of Anesthesia
The ancient Greeks used alcohol and opium. Patients in the 12th century got a ‘soporific sponge.’ A look at anesthetics over the centuries
Every year, some 21 million Americans undergo a general anesthetic. During recent minor surgery, I became one of the roughly 26,000 Americans a year who experience “anesthetic awareness” during sedation: I woke up. I still can’t say what was more disturbing: being conscious or seeing the horrified faces of the doctors and nurses.
The best explanation my doctors could give was that not all brains react in the same way to a general anesthetic. Redheads, for example, seem to require higher dosages than brunettes. While not exactly reassuring, this explanation does highlight one of the many mysteries behind the science of anesthesia.
Although being asleep and being unconscious might look the same, they are very different states. Until the mid-19th century, a medically induced deep unconsciousness was beyond the reach of science. Healers had no reliable way to control, let alone eliminate, a patient’s awareness or pain during surgery, though not for lack of trying.
The ancient Greeks generally relied on alcohol, poppy opium or mandrake root to sedate patients. Evidence from the “Sushruta Samhita,” an ancient Sanskrit medical text, suggests that Indian healers used cannabis incense. The Chinese developed acupuncture at some point before 100 B.C., and in Central and South America, shamans used the spit from chewed coca leaves as a numbing balm.
Little changed over the centuries. In the 12th century, Nicholas of Salerno recorded in a treatise the recipe for a “soporific sponge” with ingredients that hadn’t advanced much beyond the medicines used by the Greeks: a mixture of opium, mulberry juice, lettuce seed, mandrake, ivy and hemlock.