Narcosis and nightshade

BMJ 1996; 313 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.313.7072.1630 (Published 21 December 1996) Cite this as: BMJ 1996;313:1630
  1. Anthony John Carter, consultant anaesthetista
  1. a North Staffordshire Hospital, Stoke on Trent ST4 6QG
  1. Correspondence to: 21 Church Road, Alsager, Stoke on Trent ST7 2HB.

    Although this year marks the 150th anniversary of the discovery of modern surgical anaesthesia, surgery itself has a much longer history. It is well known that extracts from the opium poppy, Papaver somniferum, were used to dull the pain of surgery during ancient times but less well known that extracts from plants with sedative powers often accompanied them, producing primitive anaesthesia. Most of these sedative plants were members of a large botanical family, the Solanaceae. This paper describes some of them and discusses the ways in which they were administered. It also explains why, during the middle ages, these primitive techniques went out of use but how none the less they provided Shakespeare with the inspiration for some of his greatest plays. When the active principal of the Solanaceae was identified as scopolamine, it came to play a part in 20th century anaesthesia. The combination of omnopon and scopolamine lives on as a premedication, and the presence of poppy heads and mandrake roots on the arms of today's Association of Anaesthetists serves to remind us of the speciality's links with its past.

    Seven months after the performance of the first operation under ether anaesthesia the Lancet published a short extract from a paper in a provincial French journal.1 The extract was entitled “A substitute for the Vapour of Ether to annul Sensation during Operations,” and this is what it said:

    At midsummer, when vegetation is at its height, Solanum nigrum, Hyoscyamus niger, Cicuta minor, Datura stramonium, and Lactuca virosa are gathered, and a sponge is plunged into their juice freshly expressed. The sponge is then dried in the sun, the process of dipping and drying is repeated two or three times, and the sponge is then laid up in a dry place.

    When the sponge is required for use, …

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