Friday, 4 May 2012

No Laughing Matter

A recently completed task has been the re-housing of LHSA’s collection of glass plate negatives which relate to the teaching of Obstetrics at Edinburgh University from the 1950s to 1970s. These were designed to be used with a lantern box to project the images onto a wall or screen.
An interesting slide found in this collection shows a poster from 1845, advertising ‘A Grand Exhibition of the effects produced by inhaling nitrous oxide, exhilerating [sic], or laughing gas!’ (LHSA ref: P15346). Tickets are priced at ‘12½ cents’ suggesting that it originates from North America. In case people thinking of going were worried of potential risks to their safety, the poster reassures them, ‘The gas will be administered only to gentlemen of the first respectability. The object is to make the entertainment in every respect, a genteel affair.’
Laughing Gas exhibition poster, 1845
After over 40 years of being used only as a sideshow amusement, nitrous oxide was finally considered for use as an anaesthetic for minor operations from 1847 onwards. This was a great development, because during the early 19th century surgery was greatly restricted by the patients’ capacity to suffer pain. Operations were also carried out using the stronger anaesthetic, ether, from 1846. In Edinburgh, Professor of Midwifery, James Young Simpson sought an alternative to ether as it was found to be unpleasant and an irritant for patients to inhale. By means of dangerous experiments, inhaling various chemicals with his assistants, Simpson found that chloroform was stronger and more pleasant to inhale so he began using this for his operations from November 1847. Today, a wide variety of both general and local anaesthetic drugs and muscle relaxants are used to ensure patients can be operated on safely. Careful monitoring of patients’ responses means that the doses of them can be controlled and the risks minimised.

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