Whether it’s a dental visit or major surgery, we have anesthetics to keep the pain away.
Aren’t you glad? Can you imagine the wooden splint set between your teeth, the doctor pulling up your shirt to make an incision? Can you imagine the buzz of the dental drill minus the Novocaine?
When it comes to enduring pain, the world changed for the better in the mid 1800s. And it changed right here.
Of course, both Madison County and Jackson County lay claim to the famous Crawford W. Long, the father of medical anesthesia.
Most every Madison County resident has noticed the statue of Long that sits on the southern side of the old county courthouse in the center of downtown Danielsville. Also, the house Long was born in still stands in Danielsville off the street named after him.
Crawford practiced medicine in Jefferson. And in that town to our west is the Crawford W. Long Museum, which has been closed since June 2008 for structural renovations and exhibit upgrades. The museum re-opened Jan. 9.
I’m sure Madison County history buffs will be interested in seeing the renovated museum. Even if it is in a neighboring county, it is a tribute to one of Madison County’s most important natives.
As the inscription on his statue in Danielsville notes, Long was the “discoverer of the use of sulphuric ether as an anaesthetic in surgery on March 30, 1842 at Jefferson, Jackson County, Georgia...”
The anesthetic was used that day on James Venable, who had a tumor removed from his neck. Long reportedly performed eight surgeries with ether before other doctors began copying him.
The 26-year-old doctor had the idea for using ether in surgery after noticing that those who used ether recreationally seemed intoxicated and without pain when they staggered and fell.
Despite his accomplishment, there’s a debate over whether Long was actually the “father of anesthesia.” Some say it was William T. Morton, a Boston dentist, who used ether while removing a tumor from the neck of Gilbert Abbott, a Cambridge, Mass., newspaper printer in October of 1846 in front of a crowded amphitheater. In 1997, Time Magazine credited Morton as “the father” of anesthesia. The Crawford Long Museum wrote a letter to the magazine to point out their error, that Long was, in fact, the father of anesthesia. Time wrote back, acknowledging that Long used ether in surgery first. But Time maintained that Morton had greater stature in the field of anesthesia because he was “the first to demonstrate its (ether’s) anesthetic efficacy before an audience of fellow surgeons...”
Whether he gets snubbed or not, Long was clearly ahead of his time, a pioneer in medicine.
Strangely, some 160 years after Long’s historic surgery with anesthesia, scientists still don’t understand why anesthesia knocks us out.
An article in a special science issue of U.S. News and World Report likens our faith in anesthesia to our faith in flying. You put your life in a stranger’s hands in both. But the analogy holds true only if the pilot, mechanic and aircraft designer don’t know what keeps the plane aloft.
There are conflicting views about what actually happens when someone is knocked out by general anesthesia. According to the article, the oldest theory is that anesthetics produce a temporary structural change in cell membranes that causes swelling and stifles nerve signals.
But most scientists agree that anesthesiology is much more complicated than that and they allow that anesthetics can have “varying effects.” The U.S. News and World Report article concludes that it “may be 20 years before they (scientists) really know what’s going on in a patient when he’s under.”
But I’d prefer a little uncertainty to the certain pain of knife on skin.
That’s what you had in store when you needed surgery before Crawford W. Long came along.
Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal.