Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter was a pre-Civil War plastic surgeon who helped mutilated solders at a time before anesthesia. Prior to the discovery of ether anesthesia in 1846, all surgeries were performed with the patient fully awake. Many were restrained on the operating table by men whose job was to ignore the patients pleas, screams and sobs so that the surgeon could do his job.
Dr. Mütter lived and worked in this world. He worked to improve his ambidextrousness so that he could perform his surgeries twice as quickly for his patients to limit their suffering.
When the first successful ether-aided anesthesia surgery was provided by a dentist for a patient with a neck tumour in Boston, Mütter was the first to embrace the new drug, performing Philadelphia's first ether anesthesia surgery just one month later. Within weeks of Mütter's successful ether surgery, the drug was banned in several Philadelphia hospitals for years
You'd think that once ether anesthesia was introduced, surgeons would globally embrace the innovation quickly. But the journey that ether anesthesia took was not that simple.
For mid-19th century surgeons the norm was to perform surgeries on fully-conscious patients — this standard had spanned the entire history of surgery. And anesthesia's discovery was discovery was at a time when there was no guarantee of quality when it came to medications. Sometimes the ether or later chloroform mixture was too weak, and the patients wouldn't lose consciousness or would regain consciousness mid-surgery. Or the mixture would be too strong, and the patient would die from an overdose.
As well, doctors at the time also debated about whether the thorough washing of hands and instruments for surgery was necessary. Lack of cleanliness in the operating room led to deaths not from bleeding or the trauma and stress, but from infections after surgery.
The discovery of ether anesthesia certainly opened bold new possibilities when it came to the art of surgery, but without the antisepsis practices that would be embraced by later generations of doctors, the mortality rates for ether surgeries were not terribly different from the surgeries where the patient was thrashing on the table.
The medical community was slow to accept anesthesia but some doctors like Mütter understood that, the positives far outweighed the negatives. For years after its discovery, hospitals and medical schools would ban its use.
Prestigious doctors and dentists would publish damning writings calling the drug "satanic influence," and decrying doctors who used it by saying they had been "seduced from the high professional path of duty into the quagmire of quackery by this will-o'-the-wisp." And patients, in operating rooms and dentist's chairs across the country, would suffer unimaginably as the debate raged on.