A Look at Anesthesia: The History of a Puzzle

Engraving of Ernst von Bibra by August Weger ca. 1888

Engraving of Ernst von Bibra by August Weger ca. 1888

[Part 1 of 5]

Anesthetics have been used throughout much of human history as tools for relieving pain and shielding the body. They have played a major role in human health and medicine from prehistory to the present. In our blog series “Linus Pauling: The Mystery of Anesthesia,” we will examine Linus Pauling’s intriguing theory of anesthesia and the science and history that surrounds it.

Until the 18th century, anesthetics were typically concocted from the local flora by herbalists and chemists. Opium, for example, is thought to be one of the oldest prepared anesthetics, distilled from poppy flowers farmed by Sumerians as early as 4000 BC. In the late 1760s, however, the great British scholar Joseph Priestley discovered the anesthetic power of nitrous oxide in its gaseous state, thus rendering as outdate most conventional herbal anesthetics. Following Priestley’s discovery, the international scientific community launched a number of small-scale investigations into potential anesthetics, eventually resulting in the medical use of ether, chloroform, and other gases. In 1803, Friedrich Wilhelm Sertürner distilled morphine from pure opium, creating yet another wave of interest among researchers.

Despite this pronounced early-19th century interest in anesthesia, little was known about the properties of anesthetics. Researchers wondered, what caused the numbness and unconsciousness? Why were the effects of anesthesia reversible? What made some anesthetics more powerful than others?

A few intrepid anesthesiologists suggested that anesthetic gases formed a sort of fog in the brain, or that they caused the nerves or brain matter itself to coagulate. Unfortunately, without access to advanced medical and chemical techniques, and lacking a sophisticated understanding of brain functioning, scientists harbored little hope of uncovering the precise mechanisms behind anesthesia.

In 1847 the German polymath Ernst von Bibra decided to tackle the problem. In his previous chemical work, von Bibra had specialized in the study of intoxicants and poisonous plants and, as a result, had accumulated a great deal of experience with the various medicinal compounds derived from flora. Von Bibra’s idea was that anesthetics might dissolve fats in human brain cells, resulting in a temporary loss of consciousness and normal brain activity. He further theorized that at some point after the anesthetized state had been induced, the anesthetic would eventually cycle out of the brain, thus permitting the brain’s cells to steadily return to their natural rate of functioning.

Von Bibra realized that, if true, his theory would explain the temporary yet reversible unconsciousness induced by anesthesia and, in the process, revolutionize the scientific understanding of how the brain works. Unfortunately, his research was largely ignored for a half-century, in part due to the limitations of mid-nineteenth century technology. However, in the late 1800s, von Bibra’s theory resurfaced and attracted the attention of several researchers who would go on to revolutionize the study of brain chemistry.

All of our posts on the theory of anesthesia will be collected here.  For more information on Linus Pauling’s life and work, visit the Linus Pauling Online Portal or the OSU Special Collections homepage.

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Anesthetics have been used throughout much of human history as tools for relieving pain and shielding the body. They have played a major role in human health and medicine from prehistory to the present. In our blog series Linus Pauling: The Mystery of Anesthesia, we will examine Linus Pauling’s intriguing theory of anesthesia and the science and history that surrounds it.

Until the 18th century, anesthetics were typically concocted from the local flora by herbalists and chemists. Opium, for example, is thought to be one of the oldest prepared anesthetics known to man, distilled from poppy flowers farmed by Sumerians as early as 4000 BC. In the late 1760s, however, Joseph Priestley discovered the anesthetic power of nitrous oxide in its gaseous state, rendering most conventional herbal anesthetics outdated. Following Priestley’s discovery, the international scientific community launched a number of small-scale investigations into potential anesthetics, eventually resulting in the use of ether, chloroform, and other gases. In 1803, Friedrich Wilhelm Sertürner distilled morphine from pure opium, creating another wave of interest among researchers.

Despite a great deal of medical interest in anesthesia during the early 1800s, little was known about the properties of anesthetics. What caused the numbness and unconsciousness? Why were the effects of anesthesia reversible? What made some more powerful than others? A few intrepid anesthesiologists suggested that the anesthetic gases formed a sort of fog in the brain, or that they caused the nerves or brain matter itself to coagulate. Unfortunately, without access to advanced medical and chemical technologies, or an understanding of brain function, scientists had little hope of uncovering the mechanisms behind anesthesia.

In 1847, Ernst von Bibra, decided to tackle the problem. As a chemist, he specialized in the study of intoxicants and poisonous plants and had a great deal of experience with the various medicinal compounds derived from flora. He suggested that anesthetics might dissolve fats in human brain cells, resulting in the temporary loss of consciousness and normal brain activity. He theorized that after the anesthetized state had been induced, the anesthetic would eventually cycle out of the brain, allowing brain cells to return to their natural state. von Bibra realized that, if true, his theory would explain the temporary yet reversible unconsciousness induced by anesthesia and revolutionize the scientific understanding of brain function. Unfortunately, his work was largely ignored for a half-century, in part due to the limitations of mid-nineteenth century technology. However, in the late 1800s, von Bibra’s theory resurfaced and attracted the attention of several researchers who would revolutionize the study of brain chemistry.

For more information on Pauling’s life and work, visit the Linus Pauling Online Portal[CN1] or the OSU Special Collections homepage[CN2] .

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