Saturday, July 4, 2009

Anesthesia, The Great American Contribution To Medicine

On this Independence Day, let's celebrate the great American contribution to the world of medicine: anesthesia. While most medical students are familiar with the names of Michael DeBakey, Denton Cooley, and William Halsted, all great surgeons, how many know the names of William Morton, Virginia Apgar, Ralph Waters, and Arthur Guedel. For the moment, we won't dicuss the great works of the British citizen John Snow, considered by many to be the first anesthesiologist.

William Morton (1819-1868) was a dentist who first successfully demonstrated the use of anesthesia to the public. It is claimed he got the idea from another dentist, Horace Wells. Wells' demonstration in 1845, which Morton witnessed, of a tooth extraction with nitrous oxide failed as the patient screamed in pain. On a Friday, October 16, 1846, Morton applied an ether anesthetic to patient Edward Abbott at the Massachusetts General Hospital so that the patient could have a lesion removed from his neck. Later, Abbott reported that he was aware of the surgery but felt no pain. Thus the term anesthesia, or lack of sensation, was invented by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. who was sitting in the audience.

Virginia Apgar (1909-1974) was an anesthesiologist who invented the Apgar score, a universal method of assessing a newborn baby's health. Measured at one minute and five minutes after birth, it accurately measures the likelihood the baby will need specialized supportive care.

Ralph Waters (1883-1979) is considered one of the founding fathers of academic anesthesiology. He was the first person to hold an academic position in anesthesia, at the University of Wisconsin, Madison medical school. There he helped develop the rigorous training methods of American residency training, including the Morbidity and Mortality conference. This is where physicians discuss their mistakes in patient management so that other physicians can learn from them. Waters later became the first president of the American Society of Anesthesiology in 1945.

Arthur Guedel (1883-1956) invented the cuffed endotracheal tube. This allowed the patient to be placed on a positive pressure ventilator if the patient has repiratory failure or is under anesthesia. Guedel experimented with different types of endotracheal tubes on animal tracheas he received from a local butcher. Later he demonstrated the effectiveness of tracheal intubation on his dog Airway. He would anesthetize Airway then intubate and submerge him in a tank of water. Thus Guedel demonstrated the ability to ventilate and apply anesthesia to the animal.

This is just a short list of great American contributions to anesthesia. We haven't even discussed other distinguished names like Ronald Miller, Lucien Morris, and Humphry Davy. So today, while you're enjoying your day off with friends and family, and toasting America's day of independence, think about the great American inventions that have changed the world, including anesthesia.

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