Painless Dreams

Chroloform bottles.

Chroloform bottles. Wellcome Library, London.

Anesthesia soon found its way onto the battlefield, and played an important role in the American Civil War. Despite popular conceptions of wartime medicine as bloody butchery with only whiskey to kill the pain, records show that more than 108,000 Civil War surgical procedures on both sides of the conflict were performed by surgeons using anesthesia, mainly chloroform.

The Union blockade of 1861 to 1865, which cut off the South from major pharmaceutical manufacturers, set off a wave of medicine smuggling. During a battle at Winchester, Virginia, in May 1862, Confederate General Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson scored a major coup when he captured 15,000 cases of chloroform, along with other Union medical supplies. A year later, when Jackson himself received the drug for the amputation of his badly wounded arm, he exclaimed, “What an infinite blessing!” He repeated the word blessing until he lost consciousness. Afterward he described being under chloroform as “the most delightful physical sensation I ever enjoyed.” The general testified to the compound’s ability to transform even the most gruesome ordeal: “At one time I thought I heard the most delightful music that ever greeted my ears. I believe it was the sawing of the bone.”

Both Queen Victoria and General Stonewall Jackson found chloroform to be a gift. However, as the 19th century proceeded, people reported a variety of experiences under the influence of anesthetics. In the 1870s English poet William Ernest Henley wrote movingly about the disorienting sensations of chloroform, along with the surgical patient’s loss of autonomy (see sidebar). Later, around 1912, Richard T. Cooper, an English artist who created a series of melodramatic paintings of fearful diseases, adapted the ancient imagery of demonic possession to convey his feelings of being chloroformed for an appendicitis operation. Cooper depicted himself naked and helpless, fists clenched, lying on a platform suspended in a dark, swirling void. Small, bald, demonlike creatures swarm over him. Two drive a corkscrew into his side, representing the sharp, agonizing pain of a ruptured appendix. Another perches on the victim’s torso, squeezing his skull with pointed pincers. This demon seems to evoke the pressure and throbbing in the head some felt under the influence of chloroform. Several of the smaller demons devise a hellish concert: one beats a drum at his ear, while others blast trumpets and clash cymbals, evoking the magnified heartbeat and confused cacophony of noises described by Henley. A ghostly, distant moon—perhaps a light in the operating room—and a fluttering bat complete the sinister scene.

As Henley’s poem and Cooper’s painting suggest, anesthesia had a dark side. Such powerful drugs had the potential to cause real harm, and since medicines were not regulated at the time, anyone could purchase them. Of the three major anesthetic agents nitrous oxide was the least widely abused because of the difficulty of producing and storing the gas. In addition to sniffing ether, some drank it in liquid form as a cheaper and faster alternative to whiskey, though it could cause depression, hallucinations, and irritability. Ether’s flammability was a further danger, with smokers occasionally setting themselves on fire after indulging. Chloroform was perhaps the most dangerous of the substances, partly because it was easy to use. It could be addictive, and overdoses could kill. Criminals used it to aid murders, rapes, and robberies. And it was criticized for sparking erotic desires, especially in women.

Research into anesthesia developed rapidly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with newer, less hazardous substances and techniques gradually supplanting the first painkillers. Of the three earliest inhaled anesthetics, nitrous oxide is the only one still widely used today. Anesthesia is now a highly advanced medical specialty conducted by expert practitioners, but exactly how and why anesthetic agents work in the human body largely remains a mystery. Perhaps future researchers will be able to probe the woozy secrets of painless dreams with greater clarity.

Art historian Jane E. Boyd, Ph.D., studies the history and visual culture of technology, science, and medicine in the 18th and 19th centuries. Boyd works as an independent curator and freelance writer and editor in the Philadelphia area. She would like to thank Joseph Rucker for his advice and comments.