Funny how now that I no longer work in a GP's surgery all things medical and bookish, whether it be in the news or on my shelves are holding a fascinating appeal. I hope that's not my sub-conscious clinging onto a previous life for fear of letting it go, it would have to be my sub-conscious because the rest of me is fair bursting with joy and happiness at all this t----i-----m----e which stretches out each day and which like most people I have no trouble filling.
Perhaps it's just good to read something I know a little bit about, and in the case of anaesthetics it really is a very little bit, but Stephanie Snow's book, Blessed Days of Anaesthesia : How Anaesthetics Changed the World published by Oxford University Press, would be of interest and entirely readable even if you knew absolutely zilch.
However you do know that any book about the history of anaesthesia and early surgery is duty-bound, somewhere between the front cover and the end, to detail the terrible account of Fanny Burney's anaesthetic-less mastectomy and to Stephanie Snow's credit she sorts all that on the first page.
For me this was a wise move because if I know it's coming in a book I start to feel sick with apprehension.
Just need to get it over with.
So I was fine once past page three and then deeply interested to find out exactly how nitrous oxide was discovered and had no idea that we have Sir Humphrey Davy to thank for that. Early in the book and throughout it becomes clear that most gaseous investigators experimented on themselves and their close friends, so dinner at Humphrey's was always quite a laugh and there was probably a queue at the door. Davy himself
' utterly absorbed by nitrous oxide..just seeing the bag caused Davy to desire the gas'
so I assumed a level of addiction must have been the price he paid for his discovery.
But it was the work of a Soho general practitioner John Snow (Stephanie is married to his great great great nephew) in the mid 1800s which really advanced the whole idea of painless surgical intervention and also unleashed a huge moral dilemma over the whole issue of pain and the unconscious state which all seems impossible to even entertain these days.
Pain had always been considered an essential facet of life, whether character building, spiritually improving or otherwise so there were challenges a-plenty but there is no doubt that advances were assisted by endorsements from Queen Victoria. She who famously utilised pain relief in the shape of chloroform administered by John Snow whilst she was in labour. Patrick Bronte was another early convert to anaesthesia for his cataract surgery and Charlotte even considered having her front teeth 'extracted and rearranged' if there was ether involved.
It is against this Victorian social backdrop that Stephanie Snow locates the development of anaesthetics as a bona fide medical entity. The pages turned rapidly in this book because it's all fascinating and whilst I may wince at Fanny Burney's dilemma I couldn't help but smile at John Hoare's.
Unsuccessful surgical intervention without anaesthetic in the search for a fistula in his nether regions (and I won't recount, it would make your eyes water) was borne heroically and just left John complaining lightly of 'smarting in the parts' (that is 'parts' not 'pants' but it was probably both).
Clearly pain thresholds were an issue as much then as now.
But the discovery of pain relief caused a seismic and far-reaching shift in social attitudes and created religious schisms of mammoth proportions,
'The new generation of Victorians who knew anaesthesia to be a routine blessing of modern society could no longer stomach physical suffering in any form'
The change in society's attitudes was noted by William James to be 'a strange moral transformation' and there is much to explore in the light of this new approach to pain which had never really struck me quite so forcefully before. Palliative care will follow as a natural progression, by 1868 public hanging and thereby a public infliction of pain will become unacceptable while prevention of cruelty to animals will come to the forefront of the political agenda.
Stephanie Snow steers her impeccable research through into the 20th century, pursuing the growth and establishment of anaesthetics as a regulated medical discipline and yet the research seems to sit lightly and readably on the whole and we love that here. I emerged from this engrossing book a good deal wiser and clutching an excitingly new and informed foundation with which to read around the nineteenth century.
It's also a book full of those useful 'did you know' epithets.
Did you know that Fanny Longfellow, wife of poet Henry, was the first mother to use ether in childbirth in the USA?
Anyway, now that I've really got the medical history bit between my teeth I've moved onto Deadly Companions How Microbes Shaped Our History by Dorothy Crawford, so brace for an in-depth look at bubonic plague which I know you'll enjoy over breakfast, and just wait until you hear how many fleas (Xenopsylla cheopis) there are on the average black rat (Rattus rattus as opposed to Rattus norvegicus)...go on guess.