By Rachael Zipperer
At a party, Crawford Williamson Long was struck with the idea for an innovation without which modern surgical practices would be unimaginable. An attendee of “ether frolics” where sulphuric ether was inhaled recreationally for its intoxicating effects, Long noticed that those under the influence seemed to feel no pain from the bumps and bruises incurred in their altered state. This observation gave the physician the idea for a more practical use of the gas.
Long performed the first surgical procedure to use sulphuric ether as anesthesia in his own Jefferson, Georgia backyard. On March 30, 1842, he removed a tumor from the neck of medical student James Venable, a known partaker in ether parties, previously too afraid of pain to undergo the needed surgery. His fear is understandable as up until that time one of the only methods of pain alleviation was hypnotism (which had little effect). Upon subjecting himself to Long’s experiment, Venable testified that he indeed felt nothing during the successful procedure.
Met with skepticism even from other medical professionals, the anesthesia’s use was at first highly controversial. Despite its vilification, physicians and dentists across the country vied for the title as the first to have implemented the effective method of pain relief. In this debate, it did not bode well for Long’s case that he had not published his findings until 1849, years after others had staked their claims. Although not alive to witness it, Long’s medical innovation was officially credited in 1879.
Information, including arguments in favor of Long’s priority and reproductions of personal documents proving his case are available in Georgia Historical Society archival collections Georgia Medical Society Records (MS 2012), Series VII, box 5, folder 33 and Series II, box 1, folder 1, the Howard Meriwether Lovett Papers (MS 502), Box 4, folder 62, items 232-239, and book and Rare Pamphlet collections.