Neither shall there be any more pain

When I worked in downtown Boston one of my favorite lunchtime outings was a walk to the corner of the Public Garden where stands the lovely and oddly orientalist Ether Monument, commemorating the pioneering demonstration of the surgical anesthetic at the Massachusetts General Hospital in the mid-1840s. Ether had been around and in use for a long time, but had previously been condemned by the medical establishment. Its “discovery” represented a cultural rather than technological innovation—perhaps rendering the monument (and MGH’s preserved Ether Dome museum) more crucial than it might at first seem. Indeed, its use of Biblical texts from Isaiah (“This also cometh forth from the Lord of Hosts which is wonderful and excellent in working”) and Revelation (see title) presumably was intended to undermine the lingering view that dulling physical pain contradicted God’s intentions.

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What the great moment in the Ether Dome really marked was something less tangible but far more significant: a huge cultural shift in the idea of pain. Operating under anesthetic would transform medicine, dramatically expanding the scope of what doctors were able to accomplish. What needed to change first wasn’t the technology – that was long since established – but medicine’s readiness to use it.

Before 1846, the vast majority of religious and medical opinion held that pain was inseparable from sensation in general, and thus from life itself. Though the idea of pain as necessary may seem primitive and brutal to us today, it lingers in certain corners of healthcare, such as obstetrics and childbirth, where epidurals and caesarean sections still carry the taint of moral opprobrium. In the early 19th century, doctors interested in the pain-relieving properties of ether and nitrous oxide were characterized as cranks and profiteers. The case against them was not merely practical, but moral: They were seen as seeking to exploit their patients’ base and cowardly instincts. Furthermore, by whipping up the fear of operations, they were frightening others away from surgery and damaging public health.

The “eureka moment” of anesthesia, like the seemingly sudden arrival of many new technologies, was not so much a moment of discovery as a moment of recognition: a tipping point when society decided that old attitudes needed to be overthrown. It was a social revolution as much as a medical one: a crucial breakthrough not only for modern medicine, but for modernity itself. It required not simply new science, but a radical change in how we saw ourselves.


Originally published at culture-making.com.

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