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Right Under Their Noses: The Many Uses of Ether in Obstetrics Prior to 1847
Abstract Number: 80
Abstract Type: Meta Analysis/Review of the Li
It has been historically believed that James Young Simpson was the first to administer ether to a woman in labor with the sole purpose of providing pain relief. While his may have been the first purposeful anesthetic application, ether has held a place in obstetrics predating 1847. We sought to examine the scope of ether's use in obstetrics by searching the archives of the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, the predecessor of the New England Medical Journal, for references to ether in obstetrics.
The archives of the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal (now the New England Medical Journal) were searched using the term "ether" between the dates January 1812 (the date of the Journal's first publication) and January 1847, excluding issues published on or after January 19, 1847, the date of James Young Simpson’s famed administration.
A total of 239 articles were identified, 14 of which were in the context of obstetric medicine (see Table). Of those 14 articles, the descriptions of ether's use is as follows: 2 uterine hemorrhage treatment, 2 cessation of lactation, 2 treatment of convulsions during labor, 3 treatment of postpartum illness, 1 death of a pregnant woman by inadvertent ether overdose, and 1 case of a woman given repeated doses of ether as a "stimulant" when she was found unresponsive during her labor. This latter case, described in the July 16, 1845, issue, stated that she awakened after her delivery feeling refreshed, and having no recollection of the birth of her child.
The case entitled, "Remarkable Case of Delivery During Sleep" in 1845 may actually be the first administration of ether general anesthesia during labor, although it appears to be inadvertent in its intention as an anesthetic agent. Since this case is only briefly reported, it is unclear, but as only one journal's archives were searched, it is possible there are more reports that exist. In any event, this case series highlights ether's many uses in obstetrics prior to James Young Simpson's famed use to alleviate pain during labor and delivery in 1847.