Source: Snow, John. London Med. Gazette, vol. 39, Mar. 19, 1847, pp. 498-502, Mar. 26,1847, pp. 539-542.

On the inhalation of the vapour of ether

British and Foreign Medical Review
(1 April 1847): 573-576
Extracts from article in LMG 39 (26 March 1847): 539-542

By John Snow, M.D.

"In those instances in which I have watched the pupil of the eye narrowly, I have observed it to dilate, as the patient is getting under the influence of the vapour. This dilation is, however, but transitory, and the pupil usually becomes somewhat contracted, and the eye turned up as in sleep, as soon as the patient becomes insensible to pain. The breathing at the same time becomes deep, slow, and regular, and there is an absence of voluntary motion and a relaxation of the muscles, the orbicularis muscle ceasing to contract again on the eyelids being raised by the finger. An operation may be commenced in this condition of the patient, with confidence that he will remain as passive as a dead subject. This having been found to be the case, in order to maintain the insensibility without further increasing it, I am in the habit of partly turning the two-way tap to dilute the vapour; and it has seemed to me that by turning it about half way, so as to admit an equal quantity of external air, and reduce the vapour to about 25 per cent, that object has been attained: but . . . more extensive experience is required on this point, and perhaps the proportion required may vary in different patients. This method of continuing a more diluted vapour I have [573-574] found to keep up the insensibility better than leaving off the process and resuming it by turns. But if the respiration becomes too slow, or at all stertorous, or if the pulse becomes very small or feeble, the nostrils should be at once liberated, and the admission of fresh air will afford immediate relief. I should think it unsafe to fasten a mask on the face, by means that would interfere with the instantaneous admission of air, for on one occasion I saw an animal killed by ether by a momentary delay. It was placed in a small glass jar, and when it appeared to have had as much of the vapour as it could bear, I attempted to take it out, but could not reach it with my fingers, and whilst turning round for some means of extricating it, it expired.

"In nineteen cases out of twenty in which the pulse was carefully noticed, it increase in frequency during the inhalation, often very much, becoming as frequent as 180 in the minute in some patients in whom, from debility, it was frequent before the process began. Generally the pulse has also become smaller and more feeble. In one instance, that of a lady reduced in strength by malignant disease, it became smaller, but not more frequent; and as soon as the inhalation was discontinued, it became fuller and stronger than before the inhalation began. The pulse generally recovers its volume almost directly the inhalation is discontinued; in several instances, as in the above, becoming stronger than before: but it remains frequent for some minutes. . . .

"I have seen two cases in which the depressing effect of the inhalation was considerable, and was not followed by reaction directly it was discontinued. . . . A lady, 41 years of age, in pretty good health, the patient of Dr. Fredrick Bird, inhaled ether on the occasion of having a tumor removed connected with the external generative organs. She inhaled for eight minutes, during which time it was observed that the respiration was feeble and slow. The pulse, however, which had been about natural before the inhalation, became feeble and very frequent, and the patient began to struggle as if suffering from want of breath; the process was discontinued although she did not appear insensible, and the operation was commenced. She flinched and cried out at the first incision, although she did not afterwards remember the pain. She became very faint during the operation, although there was but little loss of blood, and it was necessary to give brandy, and lower the head to the horizontal posture. Consciousness soon returned, and as some sutures were made in the skin, she spoke coolly of beginning to feel a little pain. The feeling of faintness continued more or less all night, but her recovery was very good. The apparatus in this instance was placed in water at 70°, being lower than the temperature of the room. Two fluid ounces of ether were put in, and three drachms remained; consequently 13 drachms were inhaled, equal to about 709 cubic inches of vapour; and as it was washed ether, each 115 cubic inches would be combined with 100 cubic inches of air; consequently only about 616 cubic inches of air were breathed, making 1325 cubic inches of air and vapour: but in eight minutes the patient ought to have breathed about 2400 cubic inches of air alone. The ether in this instance appeared to act as a sedative to the function of respiration, and the small amount of air breathed may perhaps account for the depressing effects.

"In two or three instances there have been some struggling and a distended state of the superficial veins, the skin being rather purple, and the conjunctivæ somewhat injected. In one instance this seemed to arise from cough being excited by the vapour, on account of the bronchial membrane being in an irritable state, and in the others I believe it arose from obstructed respiration, which in future may be avoided, rather than from the direct effect of the vapour. By the [574/575] kindness of the surgeons to St. George's Hospital, I have had the honour of giving the vapour of ether at thirteen surgical operations--most of them important ones--in the hospital during the last six weeks, having the valuable advice of the surgeons, and occasionally also of one or two of the physicians to the hospital, to aid me in so giving it. It has been successful in altogether preventing pain in all the cases but one or two, and even in these there was but very little of the pain that there otherwise would have been; and there have been no ill effects of any kind following the inhalation of the ether. I allude to these cases to remark that five of the patients were children of various ages, from the fifth year upwards, and that they inhaled more easily than the adults generally did; that they were more quickly affected, generally becoming quite insensible in less than two minutes, and always without any struggling which sometimes occurred in the adults. For a variety of reasons, and from close observations, I have arrived at the conclusion, that this difference has not arisen strictly from a different effect of ether on subjects of different ages, but from a cause within our control. The same inhaler was used in all, consequently the tubes were wider in proportion for children than for adults. I have described all the passages of the apparatus as not less than five-eights of an inch in diameter; but such is the description rather of what I wanted than of any instrument I have used. Valves and tubes such as were already in existence have been made use of, and the caliber in some part of its extent has always been contracted to half an inch, and this I consider only enough for a child, but not for the adult. As only half, and often not so much as half, of what is inhaled is air, it is particularly requisite that the tubes should be wide. I am now getting elastic tubes, valves and mouth-tubes, made purposely for the apparatus three quarters of an inch in diameter, as wide, in fact, as the barrel of a fowling piece, and intend to give ether as fair a trial in adults as hitherto, I believe, it has had in children only. [*footnote excluded from extract] The pipe admitting air to the ether will be five-eights, and all the passages for the air expanded by vapour, three-quarters of an inch in diameter. It may be supposed that there is no occasion to make the tubes larger than the trachea, but something ought to be allowed for the friction of the air against the interior of the tubes.

"With respect to the psychological phenomena produced by ether, I have observed that consciousness seems to be lost before the sensibility to pain, and if an operation is commenced [i]n this stage, the patient will flinch, and even utter cries, and give expressions of pain, but will not remember it, and will assert that he has felt none. Metaphysicians have distinguished between sensibility and perception--between mere sensation and the consciousness or knowledge of that sensation, though the two functions have, as they supposed, always been combined. Ether seems to decompose mental phenomena as galvanism decomposes chemical compounds, allowing us to analyse them, and showing that the metaphysicians were right. During the recovery of the patient, consciousness, which first departed generally returns first, and the curious phenomenon is witnessed of a patient talking, often quite rationally, about the most indifferent maters, whilst his body is being cut or stitched by the surgeon. I have never seen this insensibility to pain during the conscious state except where consciousness had been previously suspended. In the paper on the capillary circulation, in the Medical Gazette, to which I have alluded above, I offered the opinion that the pain of inflammation depended on a great increase of the natural sensibility of the inflamed part. Under the influence of ether we sometimes see the converse of this, viz. what would be pain reduced to an ordinary sensation; thus, some patients, whilst recovering their consciousness, feel the cuts of the surgeon without the smart. A nobleman, the patient of Mr. Tracy, of Hill Street, Berkeley Square, described the lancing of an abscess as the sensation of something cold touching the part; [575/576] the manipulation of the abscess, which at another time would have been painful, he did not feel at all.

"If the patient will remain silent during his recovery from the effects of ether, as he generally will, it is better not to trouble him with questions till he has perfectly regained his faculties, as conversation seems to increase the tendency to excitement of the mind that sometimes exists for a few minutes as the patient is recovering from the effects of ether. This kind of inebriation is sometimes amusing, but is not a desirable part of the effects of ether, more especially on so grave an occasion as a serious surgical operation; and therefore anything that may prevent or diminish it is worthy of attention. The children have all appeared to recover their consciousness very quickly, and without any kind of aberration of mind.

"Any organic disease which impedes the flow of blood through the heart and lungs would seem to contraindicate the exhibition of ether by inhalation, and I should consider a hurried state of the circulation, such as that induced by strong labour pains, likewise to offer an objection to the process.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

"In concluding, however, I should wish to observe that I am inclined to look upon the new application of ether as the most valuable discovery in medical science since that of vaccination. From what I have seen, I feel justified in the conclusion that ether may be inhaled for nearly all surgical operations, with the effect of preventing pain, not only with safety and without ill consequences, where due care is taken, but in many cases with the further advantage of improving the patient's prospect of recovery; the pain of an operation forming often a considerable part of what renders it dangerous, and many patients after ether, having seemed to recover better than might, without it, have been expected. In the amputations performed at St. George's Hospital whilst the patients were under the influence of ether, it has been remarked, as was stated by Mr. Cutler, on Feb. 11th, that there has been an absence of the painful spasmodic starting of the stump, which usually renders it necessary for a nurse to sit and hold it for some hours after the operation.

(Med. Gazette, March 26th, 1847.)

 

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