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It Didn’t Take Very Long For Anesthesia to Change Childbirth

The unprecedented idea of a painless delivery changed women’s lives

Before the 1840s, women had no choice but to deliver children without anesthetic. (Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

On this day in 1845, a physician named Crawford W. Long gave his wife ether as an anesthetic during childbirth. This is the earliest use of ether in childbirth on record–but Long, who didn’t publish his results until the 1850s, spent his lifetime fighting to be recognized. Whatever it may have meant for his career, this event marked the beginning of a new era in childbirth–one where the possibility of pain relief was available.

When Long did this, he had already used ether on a friend, writes anesthesiologist Almiro dos Reis Júnior, to remove infected cysts from his neck. Long had experience with the substance from so-called “ether parties” where young people would knock each other out for fun. However, the public was skeptical of knocking people unconscious during surgery, so Long stopped using ether in his clinic. “But Long still believed in the importance of anesthesia and administered ether to his wife during the birth of his second child in 1845 and other subsequent deliveries, thus undoubtedly becoming the pioneer of obstetric analgesia,” writes dos Reis Júnior.

Later in his life, Long tried to get credit for pioneering surgical anesthesia, a contentious claim that historians didn't recognize until recently. But he didn’t seek credit for obstetric anesthesia, writes historian Roger K. Thomas, even though “his use of ether with his wife predates by slightly more than a year that of the Scottish physician, James Y. Simpson, who is credited with the first obstetrical use of anesthesia.”

Simpson studied and taught at the University of Edinburgh, the first university in the world to have such a focus on gynecology and obstetrics, writes P.M. Dunn in the British Medical Journal. On January 19, 1847, he used ether in a difficult delivery. “He immediately became an enthusiastic supporter and publicist of its use, vigorously countering the arguments of those who suggested God had ordained that women should suffer during childbirth,” Dunn writes.

After some experimentation, Simpson concluded that chloroform was better than ether for use in childbirth. The first time he used chloroform to assist in a birth, the grateful parents christened their daughter Anesthesia.

The idea of anesthesia in childbirth caught on pretty quickly after this. In 1847, Fanny Longfellow, who was married to one of America’s most prominent poets, used ether during her delivery. Then in 1853, writes author William Camann, “Queen Victoria to relieve labor pain during the birth of Prince Leopold, ending any moral opposition to pain relief during childbirth.”

The idea of pain relief during surgery was unprecedented when surgeons started experimenting with it in the 1840s. For women, who routinely underwent agony to bear a child, the idea of birth without pain represented a new freedom. Following these innovations, writes Dunn, “women lobbied to assure pain relief during labor and sought greater control over delivery.” 

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