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"Stronger Ether"
Dr Nostrum

picture of an ether can


Diethyl ether is a colourless, extremely volatile liquid with a characteristic smell. It is not an ideal anaesthetic, though it's safer than chloroform and more effective than nitrous oxide. Unwanted effects of exposure to ether can include a cough, sore throat, painful red eyes, a headache, drowsiness, laboured breathing and nausea. Vomiting is quite common. But some people like its sub-anaesthetic effects on consciousness; it has "abuse potential".

Ether is highly flammmable. Its vapour is heavier than air, so ether fumes may travel along the ground, creating the conditions for distant ignition. Under the influence of light and air, ether can form explosive peroxides. It attacks plastic and rubber. Ether reacts explosively with halogens, sulphur compounds and oxidants. Thus it poses a serious fire risk.

Ether has an extremely low blood/gas partition coefficient. Thus the induction of anaesthesia is slow when ether is used as the sole anaesthetising agent prior to surgery. Anaesthesiologists now rarely use this agent in America and Europe; but its cheapness and simplicity of administration ensure its survival in third world countries.

Of the three staples of early anaesthetic practice - nitrous oxide, chloroform and ether - only nitrous oxide remains in regular use in the advanced world.

Dr Henry Bigelow, author of Insensibility during surgical operations produced by inhalation (1846), reports that from his own experience the effects of inhaling sub-anaesthetic doses of pure ether were almost as exhilarating as nitrous oxide "or of the Egyptian haschish" [hashish]. Dr Bigelow sought to reassure his readers that ether was benign. He recalls how there was "scarcely a school or community in our country where the boys and girls have not inhaled ether, to produce gayety."

William Morton
Valerius Cordus
Utopian Surgery?
Refs and Further Reading
Crawford Williamson Long
Anaesthesia and Anaesthetics
"Gentlemen, this is no Humbug"