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 means "feeling."

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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