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Moments in Surgical History |

Anesthesia During the Civil War

Ira M. Rutkow, MD, MPH, DrPH
Arch Surg. 1999;134(6):680. doi:10.1001/archsurg.134.6.680.
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INITIALLY, THE GENERAL ignorance of the average Civil War "surgeon" regarding the use of chloroform and ether, combined with widely reported incidents of anesthetic mishaps, accounted for considerable controversy over whether anesthesia was appropriate in the military setting. This dispute led to romanticized tales of uncountable soldiers biting a bullet or getting rip-roaring drunk as a prelude to their confronting the surgeon's knife. Despite a tinge of truth, many of these surgical stories represent nothing more than imaginative folklore. The simple fact is that surgical anesthesia had been available for almost 15 years and was extensively applied early in the war, and by the end of the conflict it was universally used. With more than 80,000 known instances of anesthetic renderings, it would become apparent that few clinical lessons proved of greater value to the evolution of American surgery than this vast and positive experience with surgical anesthesia.

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This rare extant example of bottled chloroform was prepared in 1863 at the US Army Laboratory in Philadelphia, Pa (Courtesy of Alex Peck, Antique Scientifica, Charlestown, Ill).

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