Military Opposition and Religious Objections
to Anesthetics, 1846-1848

George A. Swanson, M.D., Maurice S. Albin, M.D.,
A.J. Wright, M.L.S., Kamara A. Savage, B.S.
Anesthesiology, University of Alabama,
Birmingham, Alabama.
Anesthesiology 2004; 101: A1311


On October 16, 1846, William Thomas Green Morton used sulfuric ether to anesthetize a patient at the Massachusetts General Hospital. January 19, 1847 Sir James Young Simpson first used sulfuric ether during labor in Edinburgh, Scotland. The first wartime use of anesthesia was on March 29, 1847 in Vera Cruz, Mexico when Edward H. Barton administered sulfuric ether for an amputation. (Aldrete JA,1984). Simpson introduced chloroform in late 1847. From the start the introduction of anesthesia would be controversial. Arguments against anesthesia in obstetrics ranged from questioning the safety for mother and fetus to challenging the theological basis for altering the birthing process. Simpson lived in a society immersed in religion, and his daily interactions were with people whose culture was shaped by the established Church. In December 1847 he wrote, Answer to the Religious Objections Advanced Against the Employment of Anaesthetic Agents in Midwifery and Surgery. In the creation narrative of Judaism and Christianity, the first parents, Adam and Eve were tempted to defy the command of God not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In their choice to disobey, Original Sin was born in which they and all their descendants fell from a state of innocence and intimacy with God, to a state of suffering and toil (the primal curse) experienced in the pursuit of food and childbirth. Farr points out, documented evidence of the opposition which fueled Simpson's efforts is thin. In fact, rather than condemning, prominent leaders from across the established religious spectrum agreed with the pro-anesthesia argument. Dr. Protheroe Smith (Anglican obstetrician), Rev. Thomas Chalmers (Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland),and Rabbi Abraham De Sola (Canada's first Rabbi) were in written agreement with anesthesia. Queen Victoria, the Defender of the Faith, gave implicit endorsement by allowing John Snow to administer chloroform at the delivery of her son, Prince Leopold in April, 1853. (Farr AD,1980). The Most Rev. John Bird Sumner, Archbishop of Canterbury (1848-1862) records no condemnation of anesthesia, whose daughter had obstetric anesthesia in the year following Queen Victoria's. Early military opposition to the use of volatile agents was initially based on the anecdotes and bias of military surgeons. John B. Porter was an example. Concern centered on fears of hemorrhage and poor wound healing. Contemporary social preconceptions regarding the physical constitution of males centered on notions of "manliness". There was a prevailing social attitude that young, healthy men did not need or might be harmed by anesthesia. (Pernick MA,1985). However, using chloroform in the Crimean War, the French reported more than 25,000 operations without a fatality, and the British reported 20,000 operations with one fatality. (Albin MS, 2000). Porter misstated the views of the British Surgeon, J.G. Guthrie, and French surgeon, Velpeau. They in fact approved of ether and chloroform. (Guthrie JG,1863; Neveu R.,1945). Porter doubted the safety of any anesthetics, prohibiting them in his medical commands. (Porter JB,1852). Despite Porter’s opposition, these agents were in common use by the American Civil War. Porter's style of military opposition to anesthetics would be only a temporary delay in the development of trauma care in the United States.
John B. Porter
General anaesthetics
Obstetric anaesthesia
Contemporary anaesthesia
Archbishop John Bird Sumner
Anaesthesia and anaesthetics
Alfred-Armand-Louis-Marie Velpeau
Florence Nightingale and Sir John Hall
Anesthesia for trauma during wartime
Anaesthesia: rivalries and discoveries
First use of anaesthetics in different countries

and further reading
Future Opioids
BLTC Research
Utopian Surgery?
The Good Drug Guide
The Abolitionist Project
The Hedonistic Imperative
The Reproductive Revolution
Critique of Huxley's Brave New World