necessarily GDP) by a considerable amount. Yet the discovery seems to have been not just accidental but made almost in a wave of absent mindedness, underlining the lack of inevitability and determinacy in invention. Ether was first synthesized in 1540 and known as “sweet vitriol” -- why did it take three centuries till its properties were fully recognized?53 It could have happened a century earlier, alleviating unspeakable agony for hundreds of thousands of “patients” of the surgeons of the time.
Could anesthesia have been invented in China? Unlike optics, in this case there was no need here for some breakthrough in the underlying knowledge base, since little of that existed in the West either. Nobody in the mid nineteenth century had any idea how precisely ether, chloroform, or other substances knocked out the patient. The Chinese embarked on another route toward pain relief: instead of chemical intervention, their path led to physical means through acupuncture. Yet much of Chinese medicine was based on the use of herbal medicine and the prevalence of opium in the nineteenth century indicates that chemical intervention in sensatory bodily processes was by no means alien to them. Perhaps more plausible is the explanation that surgery itself was rare in China. 54 Conditional on that premise, perhaps the Chinese should not have been interested in anesthesia. But this argument does not seem wholly satisfactory. Childbirth suffering presumably was not wholly culturally-determined.
We need to ask what it was, if anything, in Chinese culture that made surgery unacceptable. To maintain simply that Chinese medicine was “different” from Western and therefore failed to develop surgery, anesthesia, aseptic methods, and so on strikes me as a simplification. There was not one but many types of Chinese medicine, just as there were different approaches to other parts of natural science. Yet none of them resulted in the adoption of surgery as a widely practice form of medicine outside cataract surgery.55 It must be concluded, therefore, that Western medicine itself was not “inevitable.”
53Nitrous Oxide (laughing gas) was discovered by Joseph Priestley in 1772. No less an authority than the great Humphry Davy – the leading applied scientist of his day – suggested in 1799 that it “appears capable of destroying physical pain, it may be possibly be used during surgical operation.” Ether had also been manufactured since the eighteenth century for use as a solvent, but although its anesthetic properties were known in the early nineteenth century and mentioned in an anonymous note in the Quarterly Journal of Science and the Arts in 1818, they were never applied to surgery until 1842. In that year Crawford Long in Jefferson, Georgia removed the diseased toe of a slave boy under anesthesia. The technique was publicized widely in 1846 by an American dentist, W.T.G. Morton, who extracted a tooth using ether. Two years earlier, Horace Wells had used laughing gas for similar purposes. The celebrated Scottish gynaecologist, James Simpson discovered at about the same time (1847) the properties of another chemical solvent, chloroform. Within a few years the idea “caught on” and surgery went through the greatest revolution ever. Ulrich Tröhler, “Surgery (Modern).” In W.F. Bynum and Roy Porter, eds. Companion Encyclopedia of the History of Medicine, Vol. 2. London: Routledge.1993. Arthur W. Slater, “Fine Chemicals.” In Charles Singer et al., eds., A History of Technology Vol. V. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1958. Sherwin B. Nuland, Doctors: The Biography of Medicine. New York: Knopf, 1988.
54Paul Unschuld, Medicine in China: A History of Ideas. Berkeley: University of California Press.1985, pp. 150-52.
55The Chinese are known to have experimented with cataract surgery, influenced by Indian medicine, in the ninth and tenth centuries, yet the initiatives did not take off. When an American medical missionary, Peter Parker, opened a clinic in Canton in 1835, cataract patients flocked to him by the thousands. Chloroform anesthesia was reportedly used in China in 1848, within two years after its use in the West. Unschuld, Medicine in China, p. 152. S. Yung, “History of Modern Anesthesia in China.” In Joseph Rupreht et