Going Under: Ether, Chloroform, and the Making of Modern Anaesthesia

Location: The Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret

October 12, 2023 - October 12, 2023

12th October 2023


Illustration of a man putting a handkerchief over another man's face from behind


When surgical anaesthesia with ether was publicly demonstrated in 1846, it promised to revolutionise the experience of surgery for both patient and the
surgeon. But ether had its problems, and doctors began to look for something better. The introduction of chloroform anaesthesia a year later
promised improvement. But soon after, chloroform anaesthesia administered for the removal of an ingrowing toenail would end in a sudden
and unexpected death. For almost 70 years doctors argued about the relative safety of ether and chloroform, what really made a ‘good’ anaesthetic drug, and how best to
administer them. And while doctors argued about safety, the general public had their own concerns. How could they make sure the surgeon amputated
the correct leg if they weren’t awake to tell them? And what might happen if these drugs fell into the wrong hands?

To coincide with the 320th anniversary of the Herb Garrett, this talk will explore the early days of anaesthesia, how ether and chloroform’s different properties caused concern both in the operating theatre and beyond, and how the debates over safety in early anaesthesia have informed how we administer anaesthesia today.

About the speaker:

Dr Matthew Heron is an anaesthetist working in London, with a specialist interest in anaesthesia for neurosurgery. After completing undergraduate and postgraduate studies at the University of Sheffield, he obtained his medical degree at St George’s Hospital Medical School, University of London. Alongside his clinical work in the NHS, he is interested in how anaesthetists can develop a dialogue with the public about what anaesthetists do when their patients are ‘asleep’. His podcast ‘Ether/Or’ explored the history of anaesthesia and his public speaking has considered how modern controversies in the speciality can be explored through an historical lens.

About the event: 

-5:45 pm: Doors open.
-6:00-7:00 pm: Talk + Q& A.
-7:15-8:30 pm: -Music will play in the Herb Garret courtesy of our resident DJ Andrew RavenSable.
-The Apothecary Bar is opened until 8:10 pm. Drink tokens can be purchased at Front of House (Glass of wine/beer £5 and thematic cocktail £6).
-Workshop/Activities to take place in the Herb Garret.
-Time to look at the exhibitions. (Be advised that we do not allow any drinks in the Old Operating Theatre itself).
-8:30 pm: Event ends, but you can continue the party at Amazing Grace below us if you are so inclided!

We are looking forward to welcoming you to this event!

And some other things…

*Access is through a 52-step spiral staircase. For more information go to Access. 

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***All income from ticket sales goes to support the upkeep of the museum, a registered charity, and the collection.