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Early use of ether on a patient at the Massachusetts General Hospital, 1847

Early use of ether on a patient at the Massachusetts General Hospital, 1847

Credits:Wellcome Library, London.

Ether is a colourless liquid which causes unconsciousness. Ether had been discovered in 1275, and its hypnotic effects noted in 1540 by the German botanist and chemist Valerius Cordus (1515-44). His contemporary Paracelsus also noted that it could be used to produce sleep.

Ether began being used as a medical treatment in 1794, and had a reputation as a recreational drug in the 1800s. From the 1840s ‘ether frolics’ involved the inhalation of ether at parties, which were often held by medical students. The use of ether specifically as an anaesthetic in dental and surgical procedures began in the 1840s. Its history was marked by bitter quarrels over who had first begun to use it this way. The Boston dentist William Morton was particularly active in attempting to patent its use.

Ether drinking was common in Scotland, Norway, Russia and France. But it was particularly popular in Ireland, where the Catholic Church promoted abstinence from alcohol. People pledged not to drink alcohol but from the mid-1840s the Irish consumed ether as a way to get around their pledge - it was drunk neat and the mouth was washed out with cold water before and after.

The British government had worked hard to prevent the illegal distillation of alcohol, but ether was a legal substitute. Like alcohol, it was sold in pubs. It was also available from shops, and groups of women would hold ether parties in their houses. From 1890 the sale of ether was strictly limited in Ireland by the British government after it was classified as a poison. By the 1840s, most surgeons used chloroform instead of ether.


S J Snow, Blessed Days of Anaesthesia: How Anaesthetics Changed the World (Oxford: OUP, 2008)