Ether was commonly used as an anesthetic for more than a century. Some of us are old enough that we can attest that it worked well!

Doctors the births of ten Wilson children (two sets of twins), in rural Guthrie County, Stuart, and Dexter. Leora’s mother was also with her each time, from 1915 to 1931. Among other things, the babys’ grandmother “administered the ether.” She dripped the liquid anesthetic onto a cloth for Leora to breathe.

Doctor Keith Chapler, who arrived in Dexter in 1933, also used it for Leora when he fished the broken needle out of her hand in early 1935. The ether used as an anesthetic made her nauseous afterwards. Since it was terribly cold that January, the doctor was also concerned that breathing ether could make her more susceptible to pneumonia. 

A Little History

What is ether? An inhalation anesthetic, which was used for over a hundred years. Its discovery as an anesthetic didn’t occur until 1840s, marking the birth of a modern age in anesthesiology. Before the middle of the 19th century and the discovery of ether, surgery was a rare and gruesome procedure.

Ether was safe, easy to use, and was the standard general anesthetic until the 1960s when the fluorinated hydrocarbons came into common use. Although they reduced ether’s problems of nausea and flammability, they were expensive to produce and brought their own side effects. The open-drop delivery system for ether was traded for vaporizers and monitoring systems.


Doctor Chapler used ether when my sister Gloria, cousin Susan, and I underwent tonsillectomies in December of 1950. I don’t remember the smell, but that it put me out quickly.

The clipping says that Susan’s mother, Mrs. John Shepherd, had an 8-pound baby at the Dexter hospital about the same time!

Aunt Nadine Shepherd was probably administered ether during the birth. I’m pretty sure they gave my mother some when I was born in 1944.




Use During the Civil War

I remembered that the protagonist in one of Jocelyn Green’s historical novels about the Civil War was a nurse, and that she wrote very descriptive medical scenes. Jocelyn enjoys research, so I figured she’d probably studied ether. Indeed, ether and chloroform, both of which were used as an anesthesia. She shared what she’d learned, along with sources.

(Wedded to War is the first of Jocelyn’s fascinating “Heroines Behind the Lines” series.)

Ether was less dangerous than chloroform, took effect more slowly with fewer side effects, but patients objected to the odor, which could trigger coughing.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.