15th March 1813. Snow and Anaesthetics.

Today in 1813 John Snow one of the pioneers in the adoption of Anaesthesia  was born, being particularly notable for Ether gaining a wider acceptance especially after his 1847 treatise, ‘On Inhalating Vapour of Ether’.

Involved in calculating the correct dosage for both Ether and Chloroform as a surgical anaesthetic, he was anaesthetist to Queen Victoria in her last two confinements.

However the Lancet criticized Snow, though without naming him, for using Chloroform during the birth of Prince Leopold in 1853.(1)

Ether-inhaler 1847. Snow popularised the obstetric use of Ether by designing apparatus for its safe administration.

However following its use with Leopold and her last child Beatrice in 1857, the association of anaesthetics with the Royal Family ensured a wider use generally. 

Michael Faraday wrote of the use of Ether in anaesthetics back in his 1818 publication that: ‘Inhalation of the vapour of Ether produced the same effect on ‘Mentation’ and Conscience as Nitrous Oxide (Laughing Gas).

It was through his association with Humphrey Davy, an avid user of Nitrous Oxide for recreational use, that he saw its possibility.

However Sulfuric Ether was common, convenient, cheap and easily available in contrast to Nitrous Oxide which required expensive, cumbersome and not widely available apparatus for production.

British doctors were using Diethyl Ether in the 1840.s when it was widely used in conjunction with Opium and was to  largely supplant the use of Chloroform as a general anaesthetic due to the latter’s undesirable side-effects.

Ether a Functional Group, a Derivative of the Organic Hydrocarbons, an extremely volatile liquid and invisible gas, that smells like carrots, was not an ideal anaesthetic, but safer than chloroform.

Of the three staples of early Anaesthetics practice, Nitrous Oxide (Laughing Gas), Chloroform and Ether, only Nitrous Oxide remains in regular use in the advanced world, though mixed with more modern compounds, non-flammable drugs such as Halothane, sold under the brand-name Fluothane.(2)


(1) Snow died on 16th June 1858.

(2) Most diethyl ethers are produced as a by-product of the vapour phase, by hydration of Ethylene to make ethanol (Ethyl alcohol or drinking alcohol). Ethylene (Ethene) is a hydrocarbon and the simplest of the Alkenes.

Ether is a highly flammable vapour, heavier than air, and fumes travel along the ground and under the influence of light and air can form the explosive Peroxide.

It can attack plastics and rubber and reacts explosively with the Halogens, Sulphur Compounds and Oxidants, so it constitutes a fire risk.



John Snow Archive Research Companion/Pic.

Lancet. May 14th 1853.

wikipedia.org/Snow and articles relating to the Post.



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About colindunkerley

My name is Colin Dunkerley who having spent two years in the Royal Army Pay Corps ploughed many a barren industrial furrow until drawn to the 'chalk-face' as a teacher, now retired. I have spent the last 15 years researching all aspects of life in Britain since Roman times.

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