When & Where was the first anesthesia done in the military? When talking to the public, I always say that the Civil War was the third war in which we put our troops under. The first was the U.S. Mexican War, the second was the Crimean War, and the third was the Civil War, but how do we know this?

We know that the first reports in the literature of Europe indicate that in 1848 it was used in either the Crimean war or the Prussian/Austrian - Danish War over the fight for control of the duchies of Schleswig, Holstein, and Lauenburg, It was America where the first usage in war took place.

In October of 1846, Dr. William Morton demonstrated the properties of sulfuric ether at Massachusetts General Hospital. At that time U.S.forces were engaged in Mexico. Troops had crossed the Rio Grande, taken the city of Monterrey and were about to take Saltillo. By 1848, there are confirmed uses of Chloroform being used in European military medicine.

The first use of anesthesia during war was used in 1847 by Dr. Edward H. Barton, the surgeon of the 3rd Dragoons Cavalry Brigade under General Twiggs’ Division. Surgeon Barton was a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania about 1820. He had served as a professor of Materia Medica (Pharmacy) at the Medical College of Louisiana from 1834 to 1842. He later moved to the West Indies with his wife prior to the Mexican War. In December 1846, he wrote then Surgeon General Thomas Lawson, urging him to have surgeons use the new ether drug to relieve pain of the wounded and during surgery. As a former professor of Materia Medica, he was familiar with the use at Massachusetts General from his colleague Dr. Warren.

By the spring of 1847, Dr. Barton was in Mexico serving as a surgeon in General Twiggs’ Division. In either late March or early April, Dr. Barton used ether on a German teamster. The teamster had been hit in both legs by a musket ball that had been accidentally discharged. As both legs were shattered, there were no other options. The report indicated that he brought an “apparatus” for administering the “new and wonderful discovery” in medicine. While Dr. Morton first just used a cloth to administer the ether, his Morton Inhaler is probably what Dr. Barton used. The Morton inhaler consisted of a glass globe with two glass tubed openings. A sponge was placed inside. One glass tube opening would be used to pour the ether onto the sponge. That opening would then be sealed. The second glass tube had a mouth piece on the end. It was placed between the lips, making a seal. The person then breathed in the ether through the mouth and into the lungs.

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The man had one leg removed on Friday and the second leg removed on Saturday. It was reported by surgeons, which observed the operation, that the limb was removed without even a quiver of a muscle. Dr. Barton’s assistant was Dr. John B. Porter, an Assistant Surgeon that had been a military Surgeon since 1833. Dr. Porter had graduated in 1829 from Berkshire Medical College in Massachusetts. Starting in 1845, Dr. Porter had been present at most of the major battles of the war. It is thought that when General Scott landed at Vera Cruz, the ether had come ashore with the invasion force’s medical supplies.

Dr. Porter then went on to use sulfuric ether in the summer of 1847. At that time, he performed a very risky operation using ether. An amputation of the thigh was only 14% survivable during the Civil War. This operation predated that by 14 years. Dr. Porter indicated that the hemorrhaging was almost uncontrollable. There was spouting blood in all directions during the operation. He later stated that there were so many bleeding vessels that had to be secured. He used cold water to stop the oozing of blood from the surgical wound.

It is thought that the Mexican Army was using anesthesia at the same time. One possible example is at Cerro Gordo, Mexico in April of 1847. Dr. Pedro Van der Linden, Chief Surgeon of the Mexican Army performed an amputation on a wounded soldier who was “asleep.” There is also some evidence that Dr. Jose Matilde Sansores administered ether in June of 1847 in Merida, Yucatan.

The first civilian who used ether was Dr. Jose Pablo Martinez de Rio who did this sometime in 1848. He later administered chloroform when it arrived in Mexico in 1849.

One of the problems that American Surgeons had during this was their rudimentary knowledge of the characteristics of ether. They were unaware that ether’s vaporization occurs faster at warm temperatures. Since the original data was from Massachusetts, this required a learning curve for the user. The second issue was the impact of the patient’s condition on the anesthetic. The wounded soldier was frightened, in pain, and potentially hemorrhaging blood. This caused the patient to react differently from the patient who was in a controlled situation in an American Hospital. The increased or decreased heart rate of the soldier also affected the impact of the anesthetic upon the patient.

It is a credit to the U.S. Army that it is the first to use this new scientific breakthrough, reducing the horrors of war by its impact.

Until next Month

Your Obt. Servant

Surgeon T.T. Steinbach

17th Corps Field Hospital, Inc.