Facts about Anesthesia
Anesthesia/Anaesthesia Word History
The Mandragora Plant—Myths and other Information
Conquering Pain with Anesthetics/Anaesthetics
Anesthesia comes to us from Greek meaning a “lack of sensation”
or “to be without a sensation or feeling”. The original Greek is “anaisthesia,”
which comes from an-, which means “without,” and aisthesis, which
From The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, we get a statement
about Oliver Wendell Holmes, a physician-poet and the father of the Supreme Court
justice of the same name, who wrote on November 21, 1846:
“Everybody wants to have a hand in a great discovery. All I will do is to give
you a hint or two as to names—or the name—to be applied to the state produced
and the agent. The state should, I think, be called ‘Anaesthesia’ (from
the Greek word anaisthesia, ‘lack of sensation’). This signifies
insensibility…. The adjective will be ‘Anaesthetic’. Thus we might say
the state of Anaesthesia, or the Anaesthetic state.”
Another citation is taken from a letter to William Thomas Green Morton, who in October
of that year had successfully demonstrated the use of ether at Massachusetts
General Hospital in Boston. Although anaesthesia is recorded in Nathan Bailey’s
Universal Etymological English Dictionary in 1721, it is clear that Holmes
really was responsible for its entry into the language. The Oxford English Dictionary
has several citations for anaesthesia (anesthesia) and anaesthetic
(anesthetic) in 1847 and 1848, indicating that the words gained rapid acceptance.
The Mandragora Plant–One of the First Known Anesthetics
The mandragora, or mandrake, plant has a long tap-root that is usually bifid (has
a split root) and has a rough resemblance to that of a human form. The anthropological
shape evidently was responsible for the superstition that it shrieked when it was
uprooted and that its scream brought about the death of those who heard it, or if
it didn’t actually kill them, it caused them to go insane.
Because of the fear of death or insanity from pulling mandragora from the ground,
the root was merely loosened by the collector and he/she attached a cord to the
collar of his/her dog. With the dog’s struggle to get away, the root was freed
from the earth. An old document declares, “Therefore, they did tye some dogge
or other living beast unto the roots thereof with a corde … and in the mean tyme
stopped there own ears for fear of the terrible shriek and cry of the mandrake.
In which cry it doth not only dye itselfe but the feare thereof killeth the dogge
Mandragora was the most popular anesthetic during the Middle Ages and in the Elizabethan
Age it was still being used as a narcotic.
(Based on information from The Story of Medicine by Kenneth Walker,
Oxford University Press, New York, 1955.)
Medieval physicians analyzed symptoms, examined excreta, and made their diagnoses.
Then they would prescribe diet, rest, sleep, exercise, or baths. They could also
administer emetics and purgatives or bleed the patient. Surgeons could treat fractures
and dislocations, repair hernias, and perform amputations and a few other operations.
Some of them prescribed opium, mandragora, or alcohol to deaden
pain. Childbirth was left to midwives, who relied on folklore and tradition.
The mandrake has long been known for its poisonous properties. In ancient times
it was used as a narcotic and an aphrodisiac, and it was also believed to have certain
magical powers. Its forked root, seemingly resembling the human form, was thought
to be powered by dark earth spirits. It was believed that the mandrake could be
safely uprooted only in the moonlight, after appropriate prayer and ritual, by a
black dog attached to the plant by a cord. Human hands were not to come in contact
with the plant. In medieval times, people commonly believed that as the mandrake
was pulled from the ground it uttered a shriek that killed or drove mad those who
did not block their ears against it. After the plant had been freed from the earth,
it could be used for “beneficent” purposes, such as healing, inducing
love, facilitating pregnancy, and providing soothing sleep.
Mandragora, or mandrake root, was recorded as early as Dioscorides (A.D. 40-90),
a Greek physician and pharmacologist whose work was the foremost classical source
of modern botanical terminology and the leading pharmacological text for sixteen
centuries. Dioscorides’ travels as a surgeon with the armies of the Roman emperor
Nero provided him an opportunity to study the features, distribution, and medicinal
properties of many plants and minerals. Excellent descriptions of nearly 600 plants,
including cannabis, colchicum, water hemlock, and peppermint, are contained in his
De materia medica. Written in five books around the year 77, this work deals
with approximately 1,000 simple drugs.
The medicinal and dietetic value of animal derivatives such as milk and honey is
described in the second book, and a synopsis of such chemical drugs as mercury (with
directions for its preparation from cinnabar), arsenic (referred to as auripigmentum,
the yellow arsenic sulfide), lead acetate, calcium hydrate, and copper oxide is
found in the fifth book. He clearly refers to sleeping potions prepared from opium
and mandragora as surgical anesthetics “to such (people) as
shall be cut, or cauteried …. For they do not apprehend the pain because they
are overborn (overcome) with dead sleep …. But used too much they make men speechless.”
Although the work may be considered little more than a drug collector’s manual
by modern standards, the original Greek manuscript, which was copied in at least
seven other languages, describes most drugs used in medical practice until modern
times and served as the primary text of pharmacology until the end of the 15th century.
Based on information from the Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1995.
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