The Horrors of Surgery Before General Anesthetic Was Invented

The Horrors of Surgery Before General Anesthetic Was Invented

Can you imagine having your leg cut off without anesthetic? I can’t put myself there. It must have been horrible. That’s likely why I find it fascinating to read about surgery before any anesthetic was invented, and how medical feats were accomplished with crowds watching as dangerous amputations and dissections took place. states that surgery in days-of-old was a brutal affair that was only performed in extreme circumstances. It was so excrutiatingly painful that very few people wrote down what it was like, and so we have few records to turn to, to paint the picture.


Amazingly, one women actually managed to survive a mastectomy with no anesthetic after being diagnosed with breast cancer, and DID record her unbelievable experience.

In 1811, Fanny Burney wrote:

“When the dreadful steel was plunged into the breast- cutting through veins- arteries- flesh- nerves- I needed no injunctions not to restrain my cries. I began a scream that lasted unintermittingly during the whole time of the incision- & I almost marvel that it rings not in my Ears still!”

What an ordeal! Thankfully, Fanny’s surgeons had some compassion. They recognized how dreadful the experience would be and apparently chose her operating day at random and kept it a secret, giving Fanny only two hours notice before it all happened.


What else was unimaginable about surgeries of the past?

Many things. Patients frequently died as a result of infection or of losing too much blood. (Robert Liston who was known as ‘the fastest knife in the West End” lost about 1 in 10 patients in the operating theater at University College Hospital, and this was considered a good success rate).

Patients had to tolerate sitting in one of these, all tied up, while being told that the use of opiates and alcohol to numb their pain wasn’t liberally allowed as the loss of consciousness would be too extremely dangerous for doctors to handle.


And surgeons are reported to have been as terrified of the gruesome operations as their patients were, at times crying and vomiting before having to go and perform them.

And so, I am ever-so-thankful for the eventual invention of anesthesia to knock us out cold, first demonstrated publicly by William Morton, a dentist, at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

In 1846, Morton put a patient under in order to extract a lump from their neck and the rest has been history.

Modern surgery is amazing. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that, to date in the U.S, a total of 51.4 million surgeries have been performed. Heart surgeries top the list, with intestinal surgeries and diagnostic ultrasounds coming in second and third-everyone knows someone who has had surgery. Not every patient survives, which is an area for improvement in medicine, but our rates are much better than 1 in 10, running as high as 97 percent when performing the replacement of the heart’s aortic valve.


And so, I take my hat off to the crazy person who first thought of the idea of cutting into a body in order to fix something-it must not have been a very well received suggestion when it first came out, but it has taken us far. It has led us to the miracles we can now enjoy, and that keep us alive.

Miracles that we can partake in, ourselves, with full anesthesia, thankfully (!!) safely in the 21st century.



Facebook Comments