History & Evolution of Anesthesia: ancient, Middle Ages and Renaissance Anesthetics

Discovery of Anesthesia is one of the most important advancement of modern medicine. Attempts at producing a state of general   anesthesia can be traced throughout recorded history in the writings of the ancient Sumerians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Indians, and Chinese. During the Middle Ages, which correspond roughly to what is sometimes referred to as the Islamic Golden Age, scientists and other scholars made significant advances in science and medicine in the Muslim world and Eastern world.

The Renaissance saw significant advances in anatomy and surgical technique. However, despite all this progress, surgery remained a treatment of last resort. Largely because of the associated pain, many patients with surgical disorders chose certain death rather than undergo surgery. Although there has been a great deal of debate as to who deserves the most credit for the discovery of general anesthesia, it is generally agreed that certain scientific discoveries in the late 18th and early 19th centuries were critical to the eventual introduction and development of modern anesthetic techniques.

Two major advances occurred in the late 19th century, which together allowed the transition to modern surgery. An appreciation of the germ theory of disease led rapidly to the development and application of antiseptic techniques in surgery. Antisepsis, which soon gave way to asepsis, reduced the overall morbidity and mortality of surgery to a far more acceptable rate than in previous eras. Concurrent with these developments were the significant advances in pharmacology and physiology which led to the development of general anesthesia and the control of pain.

In the 20th century, the safety and efficacy of general anesthesia was improved by the routine use of tracheal intubation and other advanced airway management techniques. Significant advances in monitoring and new anesthetic agents with improved pharmacokinetic and pharmacodynamics characteristics also contributed to this trend. Standardized training programs for anesthesiologists and nurse anesthetists emerged during this period. The increased application of economic and business administration principles to health care in the late 20th and early 21st centuries led to the introduction of management practices.

Ancient anesthesia

The first attempts at general anesthesia were probably herbal remedies administered in prehistory. Alcohol is the oldest known sedative; it was used in ancient Mesopotamia  thousands of years ago.


The Sumerians are said to have cultivated and harvested the opium poppy  in lower Mesopotamia as early as 3400 BCE, though this has been disputed. A small white clay tablet at the end of the third millennium BCE discovered in 1954 during excavations at Nippur.  Currently  it is considered to be the most ancient pharmacopoeia in existence.  About 2225 BCE, the Sumerian territory became a part of the Babylonian empire. Knowledge and use of the opium poppy and its euphoric effects thus passed to the Babylonians, who expanded their empire eastwards to Persia and westwards to Egypt, thereby extending its range to these civilizations. Opium was known to the Assyrians in the 7th century BCE.

  The ancient Egyptians had some surgical instruments, as well as crude analgesics and sedatives, including possibly an extract prepared from the mandrake fruit. The use of preparations similar to opium in surgery is recorded in the Ebers Papyrus, an Egyptian medical papyrus.

   Prior to the introduction of opium to ancient India and China, these civilizations pioneered the use of cannabis incense and aconitum. c. 400 BCE, the Sushruta Samhita (a text from the Indian subcontinent on ayurvedic medicine and surgery) advocates the use of wine with incense of cannabis for anesthesia. By the 8th century CE, Arab traders had brought opium to India  and China.

Classical antiquity

In Classical antiquity, anaesthetics were described by:

·         Dioscorides (De Materia Medica)

·         Galen

·         Hippocrates

Theophrastus (Historia Plantarum)–


Hua Tuo, Chinese surgeon, c. CE 200

Bian Que. 300 BCE was a legendary Chinese internist and surgeon who reportedly used general anesthesia for surgical procedures

Hua Tuo   CE 145-220  was a Chinese surgeon of the 2nd century CE. Before the surgery, he administered an oral anesthetic potion, probably dissolved in wine, in order to induce a state of unconsciousness and partial neuromuscular blockade.

The exact composition of mafeisan, similar to all of Hua Tuo’s clinical knowledge, was lost when he burned his manuscripts, just before his death. Because Confucian teachings regarded the body as sacred and surgery was considered a form of body mutilation, surgery was strongly discouraged in ancient China. Because of this, despite Hua Tuo’s reported success with general anesthesia, the practice of surgery in ancient China ended with his death.


Other substances used from antiquity for anesthetic purposes include extracts of juniper and coca.

Middle Ages and Renaissance

Arabic and Persian physicians may have been among the first to utilize oral as well as inhaled anesthetics.

In 1000, Abu al-Qasim al-Zahrawi (936-1013), an Arab physician described as the father of surgery. who lived in Al-Andalus, published the 30-volume Kitab al-Tasrif, the first illustrated work on surgery. In this book, he wrote about the use of general anesthesia for surgery. c. 1020, Ibn Sīnā (980–1037) described the use of inhaled anesthesia. The Canon described the “soporific sponge”, a sponge imbued with aromatics and narcotics, which was to be placed under a patient’s nose during surgical operations. Ibn Zuhr (1091–1161) was another Arab physician from Al-Andalus. In his 12th century medical textbook Al-Taisir, Ibn Zuhr describes the use of general anesthesia.These three physicians were among many who performed operations under inhaled anesthesia with the use of narcotic-soaked sponges. Opium made its way from Asia Minor to all parts of Europe between the 10th and 13th centuries.


Throughout 1200 – 1500 A.D. in England, a potion called dwale was used as an anesthetic. This mixture contained bile, opium, lettuce, bryony, and hemlock. Surgeons roused them by rubbing vinegar and salt on their cheekbones. One can find records of dwale in numerous literary sources, including Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and the John Keats poem “Ode to a Nightingale”. In the 13th century, we have the first prescription of the “spongia soporifica”—a sponge soaked in the juices of unripe mulberry, flax, mandragora leaves, ivy, lettuce seeds, lapathum, and hemlock with hyoscyamus. After treatment and/or storage, the sponge could be heated and the vapors inhaled with anasthetic effect.

Alchemist Ramon Llull has been credited with discovering diethyl ether in 1275. Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim (1493–1541), better known as Paracelsus, discovered the analgesic properties of diethyl ether around 1525.  August Sigmund Frobenius gave the name Spiritus Vini Æthereus to the substance in 1730.




Ancient Medicine during Renaissance to Early Modern period 16th-18th century


The Renaissance brought an intense focus on scholarship to Christian Europe. A major effort to translate the Arabic and Greek scientific works into Latin emerged. Europeans gradually became experts not only the ancient writings of the Romans and Greeks, but in the contemporary writings of Islamic scientists. During the later centuries of the Renaissance came an increase in experimental investigation, particularly in the field of dissection and body examination, thus advancing our knowledge of human anatomy.


The development of modern neurology began in the 16th century with Vesalius, who described the anatomy of the brain and other organs. He had little knowledge of the brain’s function, thinking that it resided mainly in the ventricles. Over his lifetime he corrected over 200 of Galen’s mistakes. Understanding of medical sciences and diagnosis improved, but with little direct benefit to health care. Few effective drugs existed, beyond opium and quinine. Folklore cures and potentially poisonous metal-based compounds were popular treatments. Independently from Ibn al-Nafis, Michael Servetus rediscovered the Pulmonary circulation. But this discovery did not reach the public because it was written down for the first time in the “Manuscript of Paris” in 1546, and later published in the theological work which he paid with his life in 1553. Later this was perfected by Renaldus Columbus and Andrea Cesalpino.  Later William Harvey correctly described the circulatory system. The most useful tomes in medicine used both by students and expert physicians were De Materia  Medica and Pharmacopoea


Paracelsus (1493–1541), was an erratic and abusive innovator who rejected Galen and bookish knowledge, calling for experimental research, with heavy doses of mysticism, alchemy and magic mixed in. He rejected sacred magic (miracles) under Church auspices and looked for cures in nature.  He preached but he also pioneered the use of chemicals and minerals in medicine. His hermetical views were that sickness and health in the body relied on the harmony of man (microcosm) and Nature (macrocorm). He took an approach different from those before him, using this analogy not in the manner of soul-purification but in the manner that humans must have certain balances of minerals in their bodies, and that certain illnesses of the body had chemical remedies that could cure them..  Most of his influence came after his death. Paracelsus is a highly controversial figure in the history of medicine, with most experts hailing him as a Father of Modern Medicine for shaking off religious orthodoxy and inspiring many researchers; others say he was a mystic more than a scientist and downplay his importance.

Padua and Bologna

University training of physicians began in the 13th century.

The University of Padua was founded about 1220 by walkouts from the  University of Bologna, and began teaching medicine in 1222. It played a leading role in the identification and treatment of diseases and ailments, specializing in autopsies and the inner workings of the body. Starting in 1595, Padua’s famous anatomical theatre drew artists and scientists studying the human body during public dissections. The intensive study of Galen led to critiques of Galen modeled on his own writing, as in the first book of Vesalius’s De Humani  Corporis Fabrica. Andreas Vesalius held the chair of Surgery and Anatomy  and in 1543 published his anatomical discoveries in  De Humani  Corporis Fabrica. He portrayed the human body as an interdependent system of organ groupings. The book triggered great public interest in dissections and caused many other European cities to establish anatomical theatres.

At the University of Bologna, the training of physicians began in 1219. The Italian city attracted students from across Europe. Taddeo Alderotti built a tradition of medical education that established the characteristic features of Italian learned medicine and was copied by medical schools elsewhere. Turisanus (d. 1320) was his student.  The curriculum was revised and strengthened in 1560–1590.  A representative professor was Julius Caesar Aranzi (Arantius) (1530–89). He became Professor of Anatomy and Surgery at the University of Bologna in 1556, where he established anatomy as a major branch of medicine for the first time. Aranzi combined anatomy with a description of pathological processes, based largely on his own research, Galen, and the work of his contemporary Italians. Aranzi discovered the ‘Nodules of Aranzio’ in the semilunar valves of the heart and wrote the first description of the superior levator palpebral and the coracobrachialis muscles. His books (in Latin) covered surgical techniques for many conditions, including hydrocephalous, nasal polyp, goiter and tumours to phimosis, ascitis, haemorrhoids, anal abscess and fistulae.


Link    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_medicine

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