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From the Mayflower to the Maternity Ward: Obstetric Anesthesia and Mt. Auburn Cemetery
Abstract Number: T-37
Abstract Type: Original Research
Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is home of the tombs of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., and Walter Channing. One may admire the tombstones for their aesthetic beauty, yet not realize that these men played an important role in the development of obstetric anesthesia.
Longfellow, famed author of “Paul Revere’s Ride” and “The Song of Hiawatha” documents the birth of obstetric anesthesia on April 7, 1847: “Fanny [Longfellow’s wife] heroically inhaled the vapor of sulfuric ether, the great nepenthe, and all the pain of labor ceased, though the labor itself went on and seemed accelerated. This is the first trial of ether at such time in this country.” (1) Nathan Cooley Keep, dean of Harvard Dental School, administered the ether; Walter Channing delivered the child.
Channing’s father was Attorney General of Rhode Island, his grandfather was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and his home in Cambridge was a revolutionary war headquarters of George Washington. Thus, the origins of American obstetric anesthesia are directly connected to the earliest foundations of the United States. Channing would use ether during childbirth for most of his career. In his treatise on 581 cases of etherization in childbirth, Channing makes one of the earliest references to anesthetic safety: “My object was to learn if this use of [ether] has been safe, safe both to mother and to the child.” (2)
Holmes, Sr., was a physician, elite American literary figure, and coiner of the word “anesthesia.” He was the father of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., a civil-war combatant, prominent jurist and Theodore Roosevelt-appointed Supreme Court Justice. Holmes Sr. proposed the controversial idea of hand hygiene: “The disease known as Puerperal Fever is so far contagious as to be frequently carried from patient to patient by physicians and nurses.” (3) Some opposed his views, stating that, “physicians are gentlemen and a gentleman’s hands are always clean.” (4) It is evident that many healthcare workers today still adhere to this notion, by the staggeringly high rates of non-compliance with hand washing protocols. (5)
Mt. Auburn Cemetery, the final resting place of many important American historical figures, is one of the most beautiful cemeteries in the world. It is a place with ties to the birth of obstetric anesthesia and the very foundations of the United States. This is the magic that is Mt. Auburn Cemetery.
1. Houghton Library-Harvard University. Journal of H.W.L. 1847-1848.
2. Channing W. A Treatise on Etherization in Childbirth. Boston: WD Ticknor & Co; 1848.
3. Holmes OW. The contagiousness of puerperal fever. N Engl Q J Med Surg. 1843.
4. Meigs CD. On the Nature, Signs, and Treatment of Childbed Fevers. Philadelphia: Blanchard and Lea; 1854.
5. Kowitt et al. Factors Associated With Hand Hygiene Compliance at a Tertiary Care Teaching Hospital. Infect Control Hosp Epidemiol. 2013.