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Holmes On Anesthesia

July 2024
1min read

A little over a month after William Morton first administered ether at Massachusetts General, as described in your October/November 1984 issue, the poetic and humanistic Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote him a letter:

“My Dear Sir,—Everybody wants to have a hand in the great discovery. All I will do is to give you a hint or two as to names, or the name, to be applied to the state produced, and to the agent.

“The state should, I think, be called anaesthesia . This signifies insensibility, more particularly (as used by Linnaeus and Cullen) to objects of touch. The adjective will be anaesthetic

“I would have a name pretty soon, and consult some accomplished scholar… before fixing upon the terms which will be repeated by the tongues of every civilized race of mankind .”

If indeed the “accomplished scholar” was consulted, he did not come up with anything better, and there is little reason not to believe that Holmes’s coinage will be universally used until the end of time.

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