Surgery and Anaesthetics in the 19th Century (SWHS)


Surgery in this period were most commonly amputions (surgery to cut a limb) which is quite stright forward to carry out. But on the other hand, it was extremely painful for patient and after it usually ending up with the patient dying from a shock and blood loss or infectious disease taking place in the wound after surgery.

During the 19th century, there weren't any real anaesthetic (a substance, used in surgery etc. that causes lack of feeling in a part of the body or unconsciousness). The patient may have been given a little alcohol or a form the died, condensed juice from a poppy to help ease the pain but patient were mostly concious during the operations. As for the process of surgery being extremely painful and dangerous, the doctors had to carry out the operations as quickly as possible with assistants holding the patient down.

Surgery conditions and procedures in the 19th century

  •  Doctors and assistants wore ordinary clothes (hygienic).
  • Had spectators watching the surgery being carried out in the surgery theater 
  • Patient usually shout out in agony
  • Assistants had to hold the patient still
  • Knives and sawa were laid out ready for use
  • A tourniquet would be tied around a part of the body to put pressure on a blood vessel and stop the loss of blood. The tourniquet would be around the place of amputation to stop flow of blood in that area

Operations in the era were very painful and there were no anaesthetics available. Speed was the key of every surgey because there would be a risk of heavy blood loss, which could lead to death. The problem of infection meant that even if the patient survived the operation, they often die later.

Discovery of Anaesthetics

The reduction of pain felt by a patient was a major breakthrough in surgery. It meant the surgeon could work more carefully and could take more time if the patient wasn't struggling - although the problem of blood loss still meant that the surgeon couldn't take too long,

Nitrous Oxide (laughing gas) and Ether

Eventhough nitrous oxide was discovered first to make patient less aware of pain, William Morton found the gas ether was more long lasting anaesthetic. However, ether did have it's disadvantages:

  • Irritated the lungs which made the patients cough even unconcious
  • Sometimes it would make patient vomit
  • The gas ether was highly flammable and dangerous as the only form of light in the 19th century was from a naked flame
  • It happens to have side affects such as putting patients into deep sleep and could last for days
  • It was hard for surgoens to move around ether because it was contained in a large, heavy glass bottles

James Simpson and chloroform

Simpson was a young surgoen who had determanation to discover a better anaesthetic than ether. So at one evening he invited some doctors to his house and experimented and inhaled the different chemicals. When Simpson's wife found them all unconcious, they've realised that chloroform


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