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HomeLife In the BerkshiresCONNECTIONS: The war...

CONNECTIONS: The war on pain

In the 1840s the public believed in the efficacy of a séance over that of ether. Many doctors and most laymen more readily accepted the existence of ghosts than of germs.

About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map.Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest road map to how we got here: America in the 21st century.

It is amazing what we are now capable of medically. We can live longer and better. Our history is one of astonishing accomplishment in medicine.

On October 16, 1846, at the Massachusetts General Hospital, a dentist, Dr. William T. Morton, demonstrated the first use of ether during surgery.

While no Berkshire resident was involved with the innovative application of ether, it was Pittsfield’s own Oliver Wendell Holmes who named the new medical advancement.

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Oliver Wendell Holmes.

In August 1846, from his house in Pittsfield, Holmes wrote to Morton: “About this ether that creates insensibility to pain, everybody wants to have a hand in a great discovery. All I will do is give you a hint or two as to the names, or the name, to be applied to the state produced and to the agent. The state, I think, should be called ‘Anesthesia’, the agent ‘Anesthetic’.”

Holmes understood the significance of the demonstration, and the benefit to the patient. Others were not convinced. The first demonstration made in Boston by Dr. Horace Wells was dismissed as “humbug.”

The public believed in the efficacy of a séance over that of ether. They showed a marked preference for other “sciences” such as phrenology. Many doctors and most laymen more readily accepted the existence of ghosts than of germs.

During this period the greatest confidence was placed in the principles of “heroic medicine.” The basic practices were intrusive: an aggressive attack on disease unfortunately indistinguishable from an aggressive attack on the patient. Amputation was a primary course of heroic treatment, not a treatment of last resort.

Another well-accepted treatment was “bleeding.” Bleeding was based upon the belief that disease was caused by “bad blood”; ergo, bleeding was curative. A doctor would bleed as much as a pint of blood. In the alternative, leeches were applied. This application accomplished the same thing as the doctor opening a vein but required no skilled use of implements. In fact, bleeding by whichever procedure left the patient weakened, fatigued, and less able to fight off the disease.

We scoff at such barbaric and ineffective procedures today but neither amputation nor bleeding were as harmful as the belief Morton, and Wells before him, were trying to overcome. In October 16, 1846, one principle of “heroic” medicine was the belief that pain was necessary to fight disease.

There were attempts to find less intrusive methods of treatment. Some were very wise and others silly. Phrenology purported to allow a doctor to determine character and personality by examination of the shape of the head. “Reading bumps” allowed the trained examiner to determine criminal tendencies. The phrenology head was used for instruction. Popular during this period, today the “science” of phrenology is no longer considered credible. It holds a place on the shelf next to the Ouija board for its ability to predict future behavior or future disease.

Equally curious if not curative were the advertisements in the Pittsfield Sun and Berkshire Evening Eagle for health restoratives. There were the mandatory secret formulas sandwiched between ads for vegetable extract and opium, both guaranteed to make you sparkle. The most popular of all was the “medical panacea” – that liquid elixir that purportedly cured any disease – sarsaparilla. Though certainly soda pop cured no known disorder, it tasted good and, most importantly, it did no harm.

Other medical practitioners and theorists were true trailblazers. Their advice resonates today. Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote a tract on the single most important means of preventing illness. The Holmes prescription? Wash your hands.

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Catherine Beecher. Photo courtesy of the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, Hartford, Conn.

Catherine Beecher (Harriet Beecher Stowe’s sister) was very concerned with the lives, health, and rights of women. She wrote, “I am not able to recall…as many as 10 married ladies of my acquaintance born in this century and this country who are perfectly sound, healthy, and vigorous.”

Beecher attributed the problem of female infirmity to four things: unnaturally binding clothing (the whale bone corset), the idea that exercise was not lady-like, the notion that drinking water was unhealthy, and ignorance of the healing powers of proper diet. Her many books, lectures, and articles advised the reverse: loosen your stays, exercise, drink plenty of water, and eat right. Her advice is still familiar, appreciated, and hopefully followed today.

If you could rummage through Oliver Wendell Holmes’ doctor’s bag, you would find many items the same as those in medical kit today – the stethoscope, hypodermic needle, and suture needles. Some underlying theories also remain. The heroic idea that disease must be attacked is still with us: to this day we launch “wars” on diseases. Other medical equipment — such as the bleeding cups that caused the suffering it sought to relieve – is gone. Mercifully, the notion that pain is necessary to fight disease has been replaced by methods developed to ease pain. The first anesthetic – ether — was born in Massachusetts and named in Pittsfield in 1846.

We progressed steadily and intelligently until today there are cures unimagined 150 years ago. We have done well. Now we have to address, with equal intelligence, the difficulty in accessing and paying for treatment.

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