Ether at the Adelaide Hospital

“Anyone who is even remotely connected with the practice of medicine knows that modern surgery depends to a great extent on the availability of adequate anaesthesia” J Estcourt Hughes, A History of the Royal Adelaide Hospital, 1982

Ether was first used for surgical operations at Adelaide Hospital in 1847, marking the introduction of general anesthesia. Prior to this, no form of anesthesia was utilized.

Although ether was initially discovered in 1554, it wasn’t used in Australia until June 1847; a Sydney dentist used it to extract a painful tooth. In October of the same year, the Adelaide Hospital acquired an ether inhaler from C&FJ Beck. Soon enough, doctors at the hospital started using ether during surgical procedures.

Schimmelbusch mask with gauze, Jetter & Scheerer Ca 1930, belonging to Rice Collection

In the past, the typical way to apply ether involved using a wire mask that had several layers of gauze in between. Positioned on the face, the mask had ether directly applied onto it. Later on, the ether bottle had a dropper designed for it, allowing for a slower drip onto the gauze instead of pouring it all at once.

Patient Experience

An account in the South Australia Register, (1875) regarding an Adelaide Hospital patient’s ether experience:

“I was then sounded as to my fitness for the administration of ether, which is more generally used than chloroform, and as the result proved satisfactory the cloth containing the drug was speedily placed over my face. My first sensation after drawing one or two breaths was that of choking by the fumes of spirit, and I gave utterance to the belief that I should certainly choke. I was told “all right; breathe away’. Another respiration was followed by a pleasant trance-like sensation, and total unconsciousness quickly supervened … Regarding the operation itself I know nothing, and when I awoke felt neither pain nor inconvenience. “

South Australia Register, 21 July 1875
Adelaide Hospital operating theatre, 1906-1907, Lucy Daw Autograph Album

Although ether was safe, it did produce uncomfortable after-effects in patients. Common symptoms were postoperative nausea, vomiting and flammability. Our 1875 patient goes on to say:

I complained of the cold, for the ether had left me in a very heated state; and as we hurried back to the ward the outer air seemed piercing. On reaching the ward I immediately went to bed … for the remainder of the day I kept perfectly quiet, but the effect of the ether was felt in frequent vomiting till a late hour of the night … I had very little pain; but the ether had deprived me of my appetite.

South Australia Register, 21 July 1875

Ether was once the general anaesthetic of choice prior to the 1960s. With the introduction of newer agents, ether has now become obsolete.

Written by Margot Way, CALHN Health Museum