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Diorama illustrating childbirth in the 1860s, England, made in 1979

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A middle class woman is giving birth in this diorama showing childbirth in 1860s England. While her worried mother looks on, at the foot of the bed, a maid brings hot water and a physician takes her pulse. A nurse offers the woman anaesthetic through an Ellis-type inhaler. Invented by Robert Ellis (1822-85) in 1866, the inhaler combined chloroform, ether and alcohol. This mixture was thought to be safer than chloroform on its own. During this period, only wealthy families would have been able to afford the services of a nurse and a physician with anaesthetics.

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    Glossary: anaesthetic

    An agent that causes insensitivity to pain. Applied to either the whole body (general anaesthetic) or a particular area or region (local anaesthetic).

    Glossary: inhaler

    A device for breathing in a drug in order to deliver it to the airways or lungs.

    Glossary: chloroform

    A liquid formerly used as a general anaesthetic although no longer used for this purpose as it causes liver damage and affects the heart rate. It is now used in low concentration to treat flatulence.

    Glossary: ether

    A volatile liquid (resulting from the action of sulphuric acid upon alcohol) formerly used as an anaesthetic. Ether was usually inhaled.

    Glossary: diorama

    A model with three-dimensional objects, often sculpture, with a realistic painted background.