The revolution that unleashed the eight most prodigious decades of medicine

All the experiments had been in vain: it was impossible to appease the pain that an operation caused in the human body. Since ancient times, doctors have been looking for remedies to reduce this torture, which was used in extreme circumstances. They had tried plant extracts and alcohol-soaked sponges, opium, and the “magnetization” method, created by the German physician Franz Anton Mesmer, which produced a state similar to that of hypnosis. The only way to escape torture was speedand for this reason the best surgeons were the gunmen with the scalpel, like Napoleon’s, named Jean-Dominique Larrey, who was capable of amputating an arm at the humerus joint in two minutes.

But on Friday, October 16, 1846, the a medical earthquake: people’s relationship with physical suffering was going to change forever. In the operating room of the Massachusetts General Hospital, in Boston, there was no room for one more man —medicine, then, was off-limits to women. Doctors and students had gathered to observe the great exponent of American surgery, John Collins Warren, 68, in one of his public operations for experts for educational purposes. It was rumored that in the intervention that he was going to practice the patient would not feel any pain.

When it was more than a quarter of an hour after ten in the morning, the dentist William Thomas Green Morton opened the door and entered, almost out of breath. He was carrying a glass container, and explained to the patient, a young man named Gilbert Abbott with a benign jaw tumor, that he had to breathe in an undefined liquid—ether vapor mixed with aromatic oils extracted from oranges—that went into it. As she did so, his eyes went blank. Warren then grabbed a blade and made a skin incision. The silence was deafening, not a single complaint, much less a howl. The bundle was removed in just five minutes to the astonishment of the public. Anesthesia had just been discovered.

Recreation of the first etherization in history.

Wikimedia Commons

This revolutionary discovery is one of those that open Heal the world (Taurus), a book signed by the historian, journalist and ophthalmologist Ronald D Gerste in which he reconstructs with emotion, astonishment and in a very vivid way what he defines as a “golden age of medicine”. It was almost eight decades, from 1840 to 1914, when the outbreak of the First World War brought to an end an era of surprising advances and unbridled optimism, in which doctors and scientists guided by an unshakable faith in the future.

wake up from a dream

Most of the micro-histories that make up the story are well known —from Charles Darwin and The origin of species until louis pasteur and his vaccine against rabies, going through the commitment of the future Nobel Peace Prize winner and Swiss philanthropist Henry Dunant for promoting the humanitarian movement that would lead to the International Red Cross—, this journey through the years in which medical science transformed the world and improved life expectancy provides them with a new overall framework in which the indefatigable struggle of being emerges. human, from a handful of pioneers, for bending the limits of nature and his body.

james young simpson He was the discoverer of the anesthetic properties of chloroform, a technique that he would put into practice even during one of Queen Victoria’s deliveries; to Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis, a doctor of Hungarian origin, is credited with the origin of hand washing for medical reasons, for prevention, in his case as a tool to combat in 1847 and in the General Hospital of Vienna a mortality of mothers that did not stop increasing; the popular anesthetist John Snow He is credited with being the founder of modern epidemiology after finding out how cholera spread during a devastating outbreak that struck London in 1854.

In some twenty short chapters, Gerste links up the narrative of all these scientific discoveries that spread thanks to the development of the railway and the steamboat. They also appear Joseph Listerthe pioneer of antisepsis and whose first achievement with his phenol spray saved a small child from living as a “cripple” in 1865 in Glasgow; robert koch, a country doctor who became a scientific star thanks to his demonstration of the existence of the pathogen of tuberculosis, which opened the way to combat epidemics; either Wilhelm Conrad Röntgenprofessor of physics at the University of Würzburg, who in 1895 made the old dream of every healer come true: to see the patient’s organism through an X-ray.

Pioneering women also appear on the list, although few. Highlights the well-known florence nightingale, the revaluation during the Crimean war of the figure of competent and well-trained nurses and caregivers who offered timely care to patients. This British bourgeois shook the precepts of health care by applying some remedies as simple and apparently logical as airing the rooms and frequently changing the bedding.

But as the author writes, “1914 means the failure of many hopes, the cruel awakening of a dream that kept getting worse.” The new advances were unable to stop the bloodbath in the trenches of the Great War, and then the effects of the so-called Spanish flu pandemic. “It was not doctors who caused the catastrophe. However, the epilogue is the symbol that they, too, should always count on the failure of their efforts.”

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Elton Gardner

Elton Gardner is a seasoned writer and editor for He is a graduate of a prestigious journalism school and has contributed to numerous newspapers and magazines. Elton is an expert in various fields, including sports, entertainment, and technology. He is widely respected for his insights and engaging writing style. As an editor, Elton oversees a team of writers and ensures the website stays current with the latest trends and breaking news. His writing is characterized by its depth, clarity, and accessibility. Elton's spare time is spent with his family, playing sports, reading, and traveling to explore new cultures. With his talent, experience, and dedication, Elton Gardner is a prominent figure in online media and will continue to make waves in the years to come.

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