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Dr. Crawford Long's Painless Operation

Without anesthesia, surgical operations to save lives or improve our health would not be possible. At one time that was the case, but a medical doctor in Jefferson, Georgia changed all that. Dr. Crawford W. Long used ether to conduct the first painless operation on March 30, 1842. His patient was James Venable who needed a tumor removed from the back of his neck. Susan Deaver, director of the Crawford W. Long Museum describes the properties of ether that made it ideal for the experiment. It is an anesthetic that puts people to sleep and allows them to wake up; an analgesic that stops pain; an amnesic so people do not remember the pain; and a muscle relaxant that makes a surgeon’s work easier. Dr. Long’s painless operation is contrasted with a scene from Gone with the Wind when a soldier has his leg amputated without any anesthesia. Bill Custer, Georgia State University, says anesthesia allowed surgeries to take place that previously could not be done. However, surgical incisions opened bodies to infection, and early hospitals were not very clean. By the late 1800s, germs were understood and hospitals became health care centers with sterile operating rooms. Dan Rahn, an M.D. at Georgia Medical College (GMC), notes that all the scientific and technological advances in medicine have revolutionized health care. Dr. Rob Introna, an anesthesiologist at GMC describes the care used in administering sleep inducing and pain killing drugs to patients. Surgery has come a long way since Crawford Long’s day, but we have him to thank for his historic medical discovery.

Teacher tip: After viewing the reenactment of Dr. Long’s surgery on James Venable, write a newspaper story describing the event. Be sure to include a headline.