The Story of Dr. Crawford Long and the Ether Controversy

Born in 1815, Dr. Crawford Long studied medicine and surgery under renowned scholars and had the opportunity to participate in several surgeries. Surgery was a different experience in the early nineteenth century because patients were not sedated and were in excruciating pain throughout the procedure. ⁠

Dr. Crawford Long – Wikimedia Commons

After receiving his medical degree in 1839, Dr. Long returned to Georgia, the state in which he was born, to run a rural medical practice. Here he learned of ‘ether frolics’, gatherings during which participants would inhale sulphuric ether for entertainment. Those who engaged in this pastime would often wake up with bruises and other injuries, the pain from which they had not noticed while under the influence of the ether. Dr. Long believed that this pain nulling property might have an application in surgery and began to experiment with the use ether as an anaesthetic. ⁠

Chloric Ether – Museum of Health Care 003050001
Esmarch’s Ether Mask and Drop Bottle – Museum of Health Care 1998.11.3
Ethyl Chloride Vaporizer – Museum of Health Care 1990.5.9

On March 30th, 1842 Dr. Long used ether anaesthesia to remove a cyst from the neck of a man named James Venable. Three witnesses reported that Venable felt no pain during the successful procedure. Dr. Long continued to use ether in surgeries throughout the following years, but he did not publish his findings until 1849, when the medical community was in the midst of ‘the ether controversy’ in response to several different doctors who claimed to have discovered anaesthesia.⁠

Dr. Long did not receive recognition for his work during his lifetime. In 1879, a year after his death, the National Eclectic Medical Association declared him the discoverer of anaesthesia.

For more information and artefacts related to anaesthesia, be sure to check out our online collection catalogue by clicking the button below!

Katrina Johnston <br>(Public Programs Assistant 2022)
Katrina Johnston
(Public Programs Assistant 2022)

Katrina Johnston received a Master’s degree in History from Queen’s University in 2021 and is currently an MA candidate in Classics.  As a student whose primary research focus is medical history she is delighted to have the opportunity to work at the Museum of Healthcare this summer. Katrina is excited to learn more about the long and intriguing history of medicine in Kingston, and as a public programs assistant she looks forward to highlighting some of these stories in blog posts and on public tours.  


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