March 30, 1842: First Use of Ether in Surgery

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Surgery took a giant leap forward one hundred and seventy-five years ago thanks to Doctor Crawford W. Long.  On that date in Jefferson, Georgia he used ether on James M. Venable before removing a tumor from his neck.  The procedure was a success and Long used ether for surgeries and in his obstetrics practice.  He published the results of his use of ether in 1849 in The Southern Medical and Surgery Journal.  Dentist William T. G. Morton had demonstrated the use of ether before an audience of physicians on October 16, 1846 in the operating theater of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.  His publication of this event in December 1846 alerted Long to the claim of Morton to be the discoverer of the use of ether in surgery.  Long wrote of the controversy in his 1849 article:

A controversy soon ensued between Messrs. Jackson, Morton and Wells, in regard to who was entitled to the honor of being the discoverer of the anaesthetic powers of ether, and a considerable time elapsed before I was able to ascertain the exact period when their first operations were performed. Ascertaining this fact, through negligence I have now permitted a much longer time to elapse than I designed, or than my professional friends with whom I consulted advised; but as no account has been published, (so far as I have been able to ascertain), of the inhalation of ether being used to prevent pain in surgical operations as early as March, 1842. My friends think I would be doing myself injustice, not to notify my brethren of the medical profession of my priority of the use of ether by inhalation in surgical practice.

Long carefully documented his operations with notarized letters from patients as to his use of ether, and there is no doubt that he was the first physician to use ether in surgery.  Unlike Morton, Long did not seek to gain financially from the introduction of ether to remove much of the horror of surgery.

Long remained a practicing physician all of his life.  During the Civil War he joined a Confederate militia unit, but his unit was never called to active duty.  During the War he performed surgeries on both Confederate and Union troops.  He died on June 16, 1872 at age 62 of a stroke shortly after delivering a baby.

A deeply religious man, Long looked at his medical practice as a ministry from God.  He hoped by his labors to do good and to leave the world better by his labors.  He succeeded.

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  1. This old timer recalls the agony of being held down while an either filled mask was forced upon my face for a tonsillectomy. It was all resolved later when a cute nurse allowed me to have a bit of ice cream to sooth my savaged throat.

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