Thursday 2 November 2023

Ether, in Heaven and on Earth


Long before the first use of the anesthetic we now call Ether, it was a name for the heavens, sometimes called the quintessence, or fifth element.  Aether (aither,ether) differed from the four terrestrial elements; it was incapable of motion of quality or motion of quantity. Aether was only capable of local motion. Aether naturally moved in circles, and had no contrary, or unnatural, motion. Aristotle also noted that celestial spheres made of aether held the stars and planets.  We can trace the use of ether as a name for the heavens back to Aristotle's explanation of the nature of matter (about 350 BC). Earthly things, such as a stone, fell to the Earth because that was their natural place, the philosopher proclaimed. Fiery things would rise to the sky; witness the smoke. But the stars in the heavens did not move either up or down. They seemed to move in circles around the sky, so they must be made up of something very different than the objects of earth and sky. The sun, moon, stars and comets all seemed to be ablaze, and so Aristotle called the heavenly material the aether, that which is ablaze.

Eventually, when scientists needed something to explain how the light got here from the stars, they used Aristotle's word for a mass-less medium through which the light waves moved. In the 18th century physics developments led to the creation of physical models known as "aether theories" that made use of a similar concept for the explanation of the propagation of electromagnetic and gravitational forces (after all, the reasoning went, everything must have something in which to move).   

In 1682, Jakob Bernoulli formulated the theory that the hardness of the bodies depended on the pressure of the aether. Aether has been used in various gravitational theories as a medium to help explain gravitation and what causes it. 

A few years later, aether was used in one of Sir Isaac Newton's first published theories of gravitation, Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (the Principia, 1687).

The ether used in chemistry and medicine was probably first derived by Wilhelm Godefroy Froben, (Some suggest that Paracelsus, or his student, Valerius Cordus may have used watered down ether as their "sweet oil of vitriol’) .  Froben, German chemist, described the preparation of ether and gave the drug its present name in 1735. The name derives from a Greek word meaning ‘to burn brilliantly’ which was applied to the zenith, the quintessence of light and thence, by analogy, to the impalpable matter that separates one constellation from another. Thus, the term ‘ether’ had much the same significance as ‘alcohol’, as impalpable matter. Although ether became of some importance in medicine, it was in the sciences of chemistry and physics that its supreme usefulness lay, for it was the most volatile of all known fluids and therefore, particularly convenient for the purpose of studying the phenomena attending the change from the liquid to the gaseous phase. Lavoisier, during the course of experiments upon this subject, noted that, as ether boiled at body temperature, it could exit internally only as a vapor.  

In truth, like alcohol, much of the use of ether was for intoxication.  Nitrous oxide after Davy's 1800 dispatches about similar intoxicating effects was also popular, but ether was more easily available.

Ether, like alcohol was also used in surgeries to hopefully somewhat dull the pain, but it was not until a dentist, William T. G. Morton. On September 30, 1846, Morton performed a painless tooth extraction after administering ether to a patient. The news spread and on October 16, 1846, in a surgical gallery in Boston, John Collins Warren painlessly removed a tumor from the neck of a Mr. Edward Gilbert Abbott.  Very quickly Dr Oliver Wendell Holmes, a noted physician and writer  coined the word anesthesia.

This historical event took place in the amphitheater on the 4th floor of the Bulfinch Building at Massachusetts General Hospital.  The success of this event marked the birth of anesthesiology and transformed surgery from butchery and trauma, to a humane and often life-saving therapy.

Prior to this historic event, only one operation a week had been performed at Mass General since its opening in 1821. Success of the first public demonstration of ether anesthesia led to a significant increase in the number of daily operations. Moreover, news of Dr. Morton's success spread quickly throughout the world, thereby changing the surgical experience of patients forever! The amphitheater, now known as the Ether Dome, is a national historical monument.

There is an Ether Monument near the northwest corner of Boston's Public Garden, near the intersection of Arlington Street and Marlborough Street.  The Monument is a statue and fountain, and is also called The Good Samaritan.  

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