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Among all the great discoveries and inventions of the nineteenth century, few offer us a more fascinating insight into Victorian society than the discovery of anesthesia. Now considered to be one of the greatest inventions for humanity since the printing press, anesthesia offered pain-free operations, childbirth with reduced suffering, and instant access to the world beyond consciousness. And yet, upon its introduction, Victorian medics, moralists, clergymen, and scientists, were plunged into turmoil.
In Blessed Days of Anesthesia, Stephanie Snow offers a vivid and engaging account of the early days of anesthesia. She unravels some key moments in medical history: from Humphry Davy's early experiments with nitrous oxide and the dramas that drove the discovery of ether anesthesia in America, to the outrage provoked by Queen Victoria's use of chloroform during the birth of Prince Leopold. And there are grisly stories too: frequent deaths, and even notorious murders. Interweaved throughout the story, a fascinating social change is revealed. For anesthesia caused the Victorians to rethink concepts of pain, sexuality, and the links between mind and body. From this turmoil, a profound change in attitudes began to be realized, as the view that physical suffering could, and should, be prevented permeated society, most tellingly at first in prisons and schools where pain was used as a method of social control. In this way, the discovery of anesthesia left not only a medical and scientific legacy that changed the world, but a compassionate one too.
Bringing together the history of science and an account of profound social change, Blessed Days of Anesthesia is a compelling, and broadly illuminating, account of a fascinating period in medical history.
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Stephanie J. Snow is a Research Associate at the Center for the History of Science, Technology & Medicine at the University of Manchester. The author of Operations Without Pain: The Practice and Science of Anaesthesia in Victorian Britain, she is a distant relative of John Snow, one of the great pioneers of anesthesiology.
Stimulating and occasionally unsettling history of anaesthesia. Andrew Robinson, The Lancet Snow's admirable account of the slow triumph of anaesthesia astonishes by its revelation of the inhumanity of so many doctors. Nigel Hawkes, The Times [An] immensely readable book. Health and History
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