Medicine Chest

Medicine Chest


by Pauline E. A. Wood

My husband, Keith, and I greatly enjoyed the meeting of the Nelson Society in Norwich in October 1998. As an anaesthetist I was fascinated to find a bottle labelled ‘ether’ in the medicine chest we were so privileged to be shown in the church at Burnham Thorpe. The typewritten list of the contents clearly stated that ‘ether’ was used for “anaesthetic – in surgery”. Having upset some members by announcing that the anaesthetic properties of ether were not successfully demonstrated until 1846 I vowed to find out the real use of ether in Nelson’s time.

History of ether:

1540: Valerious Cordus synthesised ‘sweet oil of vitriol’. Paracelsus noted that it caused drowsiness when he gave it to chickens who fell asleep.

1730: The German Frobenius named it ‘Oil of ether’.

18th. century – latter half: Ether was used to treat asthma and also localised pain by applying it to the skin.

1818: Michael Faraday when experimenting with nitrous oxide with Humphrey Davy noted that ether had similar properties to gas. It caused drowsiness and relieved pain. He also suggested its use in asthma.

1820s: ‘Ether parties’ took place in the USA and it was noted that while falling about, bruises appeared but there was no pain.

1842 (early): Dr. Crawford Long of Jefferson, Georgia, extracted the highly volatile ‘diethyl ether’ from ‘sulphuric ether’ (oil of ether) used at the time for renal and biliary colic.

30 March 1842: Dr. Crawford Lomg excised without pain two cysts from the neck of James Venable who breathed ‘diethyl ether’ from a towel.

16 October 1846: In the first public demonstration in the use of ‘ether’ William Morton removed a cyst from the neck of James Abbot in the ‘ether dome’ of the Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, USA. Afterwards the patient declared he felt no pain.

19 December 1846: Dr. Booth extracted a tooth while ether was given by Mr. Robinson in London.

21 December 1846: The first surgical operation was performed in England by Robert Liston when Frederick Churchill underwent amputation through the thigh and William Squire gave anaesthetic at University College Hospital.

It is recorded that ether was included in similar medicine chests in the early 19th. century. It was certainly not used for anaesthesia but possibly to treat asthma or localised pain. There is also a report of a baby in Leicestershire about that time who was given ether to stimulate breathing. Perhaps the use of ‘sulphuric ether’ for renal or biliary colic was recognised earlier than 1842.