First Anesthesia

A disturbing story of moral failure


Dr. Long, anesthesia pioneer and fiend. (That's not an autocorrect typo: he was a fiend, not a friend.)

In 1842, some teenagers in Athens, Georgia wanted to experience the intoxicating effect of nitrus oxide (laughing gas). They approached Dr. Clifford Long, hoping he might have a ready supply. Dr. Long was happy to comply--and was even willing to join them--but he didn’t have any nitrous oxide. However, Dr. Long did claim to have something ever more “effective”... ether.
Quoting the doctor: “I inhaled it myself, and afterwards gave it to all persons present. They were so much pleased with the exhilarating efforts of ether, that they afterward inhaled it frequently, and induced others to do so, and its inhalation now became fashionable in this country.”

Dr. Long was not jailed, even though his actions can best be described as every parent’s worst nightmare.

Continuing his “research,” Dr. Young noticed that teens who were high on ether fell down a lot--and were often injured. Yet no one ever noted being in pain. This lead to Dr. Young’s eureka moment, when he realized ether might be helpful in surgery.

When he saw that a teen named James Venable had a cyst on his neck, it was an opportunity to test the theory. Long removed the cyst while Venable was under the influence of ether—on March 30th, 1842. It was the first surgery done while a patient was under anesthesia.

Yet Long was not lauded for this breakthrough, instead he was accused of sorcery by the parents of the ether-users.
Young felt he needed a more rigorous scientific proof of the value of ether, so when a young African American boy arrived at his practice with burns on his fingers, the doctor recommended amputation. Young decided to remove one finger while the boy was under ether, and the other while he was fully awake—to demonstrate the value of ether. This experiment’s main finding was that Dr. Young was a scoundrel.

If there remains any doubt about Dr. Young’s dubious judgement, it should be added that he chose a 14-year-old for his wife. It is not known whether he used ether to persuade her to marry. 

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