This Is No Humbug: How Anesthesia Shaped Modern Dentistry And Surgery

1584 words - 7 pages

Following the introduction of novel and dangerous inhalation anesthetics by mid-19th century dentists to render patients insensate, decades of controversy ensued before the wide acceptance of anesthesia that ultimately shaped modern medicine. During an era when pain was often considered to be both a physical and spiritual necessity, many in the medical profession initially rejected the use of anesthesia, particularly given its unpredictable and hazardous nature. Yet, after many public demonstrations showed the effectiveness of anesthesia in dental procedures, the dental profession and the public gradually embraced it use, completely altering dental care and driving the use of anesthesia beyond dentistry. Influenced by the prevalence of dental anesthesia as well as shifting views on suffering resulting from the humanitarianism ideals of the late 1800s and early 1900s, surgeons finally relinquished the idea that pain served a crucial role in surgery, and thus chose instead to prevent it whenever possible. Similar to its role in dentistry, anesthesia in surgery led to countless developments in medical knowledge and surgical procedures, and its use eventually expanded to all aspects of modern medicine requiring analgesia and amnesia. From its controversial early use, the evolution of anesthesia has mirrored cultural attitudes about pain and suffering as it propelled the institutionalization of dentistry and the growth of surgery, making its discovery a critical development in modern medicine.
Although physicians initially resisted the use of anesthesia, its early implementation by dentists resulted in the creation of new and more complicated operations, fostered public acceptance of anesthesia and demand for dental procedures, and led to the expansion and institutionalization of dentistry. When dentist William T.G. Morton conducted the first public demonstration of inhalation anesthesia in 1846, the operating surgeon, Dr. John Collins Warren, exclaimed, “Gentlemen, this is no humbug!” Despite the initial excitement, many surgeons refused to recognize or accept the drugs’ potential to control pain. Dentists of the era like Horace Wells, however, generally accepted the idea of anesthesia, in part perhaps to elevate dentistry as a profession and increase their income by drawing in more patients. They pushed the investigation to determine anesthesia’s proper and safe administration and understand its effectiveness. After having his own wisdom tooth removed under the effects of nitrous oxide, Wells applauded the use of anesthesia, declaring "A new era in tooth pulling. It did not hurt me so much as the prick of a pin" and he then convinced many other dentists to employ anesthesia. As more and more dentists began using inhalation anesthesia, simple tooth removals proliferated and new techniques such as cavity fillings and prosthetic dentistry emerged since dentists could perfect their procedures on new patients who were no longer terrified...

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