General anaesthesia already existed before local anaesthesia became available. Actually, general anaesthesia was introduced by the American dentist Horace Wells. In 1844, together with his wife Elizabeth, he witnessed a demonstration whereby the circus owner Colton intoxicated a number of volunteers with laughing gas.
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One of the volunteers hit himself hard on a chair but did not even grimace. Horace Wells noticed this and concluded that a patient, having inhaled laughing gas, might be able to undergo an extraction without pain. A few days later Wells took the experiment upon himself and asked a colleague to extract one of his molars after he had inhaled some laughing gas. It was a success. Wells independently organised some additional extraction sessions, after which the Massachusetts General Hospital invited him for a demonstration.This demonstration turned out to be a fiasco.
The patient was insufficiently anaesthetised since not enough laughing gas was administered. Wells’ life, which had initially been so successful, became a disaster. The physician Morton, a previous assistant to Wells, absconded with the idea of general anaesthesia, but used ether instead of laughing gas for a ‘painless sleep’. Morton denied in every possible way that he had stolen the idea from Wells. Wells was greatly incensed by this.
Furthermore, Wells was no longer able to practise as a dentist. He became a tradesman of canaries and domestic products and became addicted to sniffing ether. Eventually he was imprisoned for throwing sulphuric acid over some ladies of easy virtue. At the age of 33 years he made an end to his life in prison by cutting his femoral artery. The discovery of local anaesthesia is a very different story. One of the first to gain experience with this form of anaesthesia was Sigmund Freud, in 1884. Freud experimented with the use of cocaine. Cocaine had been used for several centuries by the Incas in Peru to increase their stamina. Freud used cocaine in the treatment of some of his patients, and then became addicted himself. The German surgeon August Bier observed a demonstration in 1891, whereby the internist Quincke injected – for diagnostic purposes – a cocaine solution into a patient’s epidural area, thus anaesthetising and paralysing the legs
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