Oh, the pain, the pain...

By Yvonne Cossart

A richly detailed exhibition on the history of anaesthesia reveals shifting attitudes towards pain.
Image of vaporiser

Drawover Pentec Vaporiser, 1965. Used in obstectrics and birthing. Credit: Elias Visontay

The exhibition earlier this year on the history of anaesthesia, held in Fisher Library as part of an international symposium on the subject, provided a fascinating portrait of the evolution of pain management. Using a selection of nearly 200 books published over the last five centuries, it was a joint venture between the library, the source of most of the books, and the Australian Society of Anaesthetists (ASA) which loaned both historic equipment and landmark books from their collection.

As co-curator of the exhibition , I defined pain in both moral and scientific terms as well as literary and polemical works about narcotic drug use and abuse. Alternative ideas were represented by Mesmer’s publication about animal magnetism, and a collection of Chinese and Western books on acupuncture, were also on show.

The ancient Roman Seneca, whose stoic philosophy taught that pain was character-building, sat alongside his near contemporary Galen, who thought pain was of no benefit to the sufferer. His view was echoed by a polemic in the Lancet magazine deploring the use of chloroform in Queen Victoria’s ‘normal labour’.

Image of mouth gags

Mouth gag, 19th century, England (locks into position). Credit: Elias Visontay

Opium is still the sovereign pain relieving drug and there was an array of 16th century herbals, alchemical and medical texts as well as a series of 17th century clinical monographs promoting laudanum as a cure for symptoms ranging from cough and diarrhoea to infertility andmelancholy.

Surgical anaesthesia is founded on physiological discoveries about the circulation of the blood and respiration. Landmark texts included Harvey’s de Motu Cordis alongside books by his French critic Riolan and his English follower Lower, who performed the first blood transfusion. Laughing gas and ether parties were social phenomena which antedated medical application of the gases by several decades.

The apparatus developed by Davy and Priestley for their scientific study of gases and respiration were modified for use in anaesthesia. Peter Stanbury and Anna Gebels, the curators of the ASA collection, chose examples of historic machines showing how they developed.

Image of inhalers and mask

(Left) Hewitt's Inhalers, c1901, Sheffield, England. Used with nitrous oxide. (Right) Anaesthetic mask, 1908-10

Europeans were quick to exploit the pharmacological riches of the New World such as tobacco and quinine. Arrow poisons fascinated them, and the Indians guarded their secret well, but a slim volume by Schombruck describes how it was revealed to him during his explorations of Guinea. It was written long afterwards when he was curator of the Adelaide Botanic Gardens.

Colonial Australian scientists were also interested in the medicinal plants used by indigenous people. Aboriginal people inhaled the smoke of burning duboisia hopwoodiae before ceremonies and also chewed extracts of the leaves.

Joseph Bancroft’s monograph describing the narcotic (or rather cocktail of narcotics) led to the establishment of commercial plantations of the desert shrub which still supply the raw material for the manufacture of scopolamine and atropine. Each book had more than one story to tell.

  • The exhibition was jointly curated by Yvonne Cossart, Peter Standbury, Anna Gebels and Sara Hilder.