Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Church Opposition to Anaesthesia in The 19th Century

I've written on this before - ie the total lack of Church opposition to the use of anaesthesia in the 19th Century. But came across this old blog post which I think does a pretty decent job of summarising the evidence that the Church opposed anaesthetics in childbirth.

The only evidence being one bloke who, for no obvious reason, made it all up.

1 comment :

  1. When I was researching the history of general anaesthesia in the Western world, some years ago, I came across the suggestion that the whole drama was an early example of spin orchestrated by Simpson himself, in order to gain publicity for his discovery. Sorry, I can't find the reference for that now.

    However, it is true that there is a strain of "pain is a test of faith" running through Christian theology; I refer you to Aelfric's Homilies where you will find "Se ðe geuntrumod beo, bidde his hæle æt his Drihtne, and geðyldelice þa swingla forbere", "let he who is sick pray for his health to the Lord, and patiently endure the pain." And lest anyone say "this was because they didn't have any anaesthetics or analgesics", not a bit of it. From the Assyrians on, medical literature is full of hopeful references to pain-killing drugs.

    Not least of Simpson’s problems at the time was that self-appointed moralists really had latched on to the idea that general anaesthesia released sexual inhibitions, especially in women. Humphry Davy hadn’t helped matters by recording that inhaling nitrous oxide [laughing gas] could induce “voluptuous sensations”. A Dr Smith wrote indignantly “To a woman of this country the bare possibility of having feelings of such a kind excited and manifested in outward uncontrollable actions would be more shocking even to anticipate than the endurance of the last extremity of physical pain.” Although, perhaps not surprisingly, he did not give any figures for this bias. Simpson himself anticipated a well-worn medical foible when he started to administer chloroform to guests at his dinner-parties; when they fell unconscious, and if they were young, pretty, and female, he is reported to have “kissed” them.

    Another motive behind the opposition to effective anaesthetics was rather more rational; in the absence of continuous cardiac monitoring, pulse oximeters, sphygmomanometers, or any metered method of administering the gases, surgeons were reasonably worried about their inability to judge accurately the patient’s state under anaesthesia. And at this time, administration was a hit-and-miss affair, usually left to medical students, nurses, or even relatives or strangers off the street who wandered into the operating theatre to kibitz. The existence of a wide-awake, yelling subject was at least assurance that s/he was not over-anaesthetized and heading for cardiac or respiratory arrest. “Pain in surgical operations is in a majority of cases even desirable, and its prevention or annihalation is for the most part hazardous to the patient,” noted one Dr James Pickford.

    Chloroform was less irritating and thus easier to administer than ether, induction with which tends to make the patient fighting mad; however, the former had two rather serious disadvantages: it is pretty poisonous to the liver, and it induces ventricular fibrillation, frequently leading to irreversible cardiac arrests. Indeed the first such took place as early as 1848; the patient a fifteen-year-old girl. However, compared to ether, chloroform was effective in smaller quantities, and quicker-acting, so despite many fatalities it was still employed well into the 20th century.


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