Ether: The First Anaesthetic
The other day in the lab, I got a large whiff of solvent. Luckily for me, it was diethyl ether, usually known as ether. Unlike many solvents, it smells nice and sweet, and it tends to only give you a short dizzy, spaced-out feeling.
The name ether was first used for the chemical previously known as “sweet oil of vitriol”. Named in 1729 by August Sigmund Frobenius, it was made by pouring “oil of vitriol”, or sulfuric acid, into the strongest wine he could find. The sweet, clear liquid formed could extract the essential oils from plants, as well as separate gold from copper. Frobenius, predicting its later importance, described it:
“Æther then is certainly the moſt noble, efficacious and uſeful Inſtrument in all Chymiſtry and Pharmacy.”
It seems hard now to imagine a time without anaesthetics. In 1846, ether was used as the first surgical anaesthetic at Massachusetts General Hospital. The doctor, Crawford Long, used ether often with friends to get high. He noticed that while partying under the influence any bruises or injuries he obtained were painless. Inspired, he suggested to a patient ether could be used for pain-free surgery. The news of a way of surgery with no pain to the patient spread fast, and the use of ether, as well as chloroform, soon became commonplace.
These new anaesthetics grew in fame so fast largely due to their use in the American Civil War. Devices to administer the ether were invented—a glass globe full of the liquid ether was held and the fumes inhaled. As ether boils at only 35 °C, body heat is enough to create the anaesthetic fumes. The vapours are then inhaled, and a doctor can saw off the injured soldier’s leg with no pain.
As good as ether sounds, it has some problems. Although it doesn’t cause fatal cardiac arrhythmia like chloroform, it has the rather unfortunate tendency to explode. Ether is super flammable, but also forms chemicals called peroxides when exposed to air. These are very unstable and can explode when the bottle is shaken or opened. In modern times, ether has been replaced by non-flammable anaesthetics like haloforms.
Like other anaesthetics, such as nitrous oxide or “nangs”, ether has been used as a recreational drug. In fact, you can hardly pull out the bottle of ether in a lab without someone asking “having a good time are we?”.
Ether has a long history of use as an intoxicant, both in Europe and North America. In particular, in rural Poland, people used to drink ether as a substitute for alcohol.
After the First World War, Poland faced both vodka shortages and religious anti-alcohol campaigns. Luckily, a small glass of ether, mixed with juice or cordial, is enough to intoxicate someone. Ether quickly became the drink of choice, and in the 1930s, around 30% of the population of Silesia, which is now southern Poland, drank ether. This continued until ether became difficult to buy after World War II.
Despite ether not being common anymore, cases of ether addiction, or etheromania, do occur. Ether is highly addictive and acts quickly when inhaled, causing euphoria and hallucinations. Luckily, there are no physical withdrawal symptoms of the addiction, except for the longing for more ether.
These days, ether, along with chloroform, is usually only found in chemistry labs. Despite being flammable, it is perfectly suited as a solvent in many reactions. It’s also still used to extract chemicals like oils, separating them from unwanted contaminants.
And of course, it smells quite nice if you happen to spill it.
To read the original 1729 description of ether (including a description of the author setting his hand on fire): Frobenius’s paper