DR. ROBINSON has seen the warm and human side, even the funny side, when he could, of the grim tale that describes the groping of mankind toward one of its great achievements, the development of surgical anesthesia.
Some surprising characters wander in and out of these pages S. F. B. Morse for one, Sam Colt for another.
Colt’s efforts to get money enough to develop his revolver got him into some odd predicaments. As an eighteen-year-old Hartford boy he advertised himself as Doctor Coult of New York, London, and Calcutta, and gave laughing-gas shows by demonstrating the effects of nitrous oxide on his own rugged self.
Later he needed money for Canadian revolver patents. His showmanship had grown with his still tender years, and hired six Indians to appear in a gas-inspired comedy. Robinson relates that the place was crowded with citizens at the first performance, and uneasy citizens at that. A number of them had cautiously armed themselves with stout canes, and some with deadly weapons. But nobody, not even Sam Colt, was prepared for what did happen.
The inventor of the revolver administered gas to his six red Indians. They promptly fell sound asleep without even a preliminary whoop or drunken giggle. Sam knew well enough that his customers had not paid their admission to see Indians taking a nap. He saved the show by administering the gas to a blacksmith who furiously chased Sam around the stage and finally fell into the Indians. The customers got their money’s worth.
Unnoticed injuries received during such frolics led to trial of the gas and of ether for pain relief in dentistry and then in surgery. It is curious how often important developments in clinical anesthesia hinged on bizarre origins of this kind.
Victory over pain is pleasantly written and in the main is accurate. Dr. Robinson sees the endless controversies in a sensible light. He has, too a good eye for the drama in his material, and presents it well. Although an unsound appraisal of recent “advances” reflects the difficulties of the contemporary historian and weakens the book, it is better than most on the subject. But it is the work of a raconteur, not of a scholar. As such, it leaves the need unsatisfied for a painstaking, definitive history of anesthesia.
HENRY K. BEECHER, M.D.