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Structure and properties of a class of organic compounds that contain an oxygen atom connected to two alkyl or aryl groups.

Atoms Practice
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Practice Ethers
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No More Pain

No More Pain

Credit: John Crawford
Source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/3/3f/Operating_room.jpg/1024px-Operating_room.jpg
License: CC BY-NC 3.0

The scalpel cuts into the lower abdomen as the surgeon begins to remove an inflamed appendix. The patient does not feel any pain because an anesthetic agent was used. Less than 200 years ago, this operation would not have been possible because of the great amount of pain involved. Today, surgery is commonplace, safe, and (best of all) relatively painless.

Why It Matters

  • Prior to the mid-1800s, surgery was rare, quick, dangerous, and very painful. If an operation were needed (such as an amputation), the patient might be given whiskey or simply something to bite on (the expression “bite the bullet” to face up to an uncomfortable situation may have come from the practice of giving wounded soldiers a bullet to bite on during treatment.)
  • Ether was first used as an anesthetic by Dr. Crawford Long in Jefferson, Georgia to remove a tumor from the neck of a patient. However, he failed to publish this procedure or patent it. So the first widely-known use of ether as an anesthetic was by a dentist, Dr. William Morton (1846).
  • Although ether worked well in sedating patients, there were major drawbacks to the use of this material. It is very flammable, so there was a real risk of explosion in the operating room.
  • Joseph Priestley discovered nitrous oxide in 1172 and it quickly became a staple at parties where people would get “high” from inhaling the gas. It wasn’t until the later 1800s that nitrous oxide began to be used in surgical and dental procedures. Today, this gas is widely used since it has none of the explosive hazards of ether. In addition, the administration of the gas can be carefully controlled.
  • Credit: Arallyn!
    Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/biomedical_scraps/6832806447/
    License: CC BY-NC 3.0

    A patent poster for a liquefied nitrous oxide tank [Figure2]


  • Watch a video about the use of nitrous oxide in surgery: 


Show What You Know

Use the links below to answer the following questions.

  1. How was ether first administered as an anesthetic?
  2. What is now the safest way to administer anesthesia?
  3. Why does nitrous oxide take effect quicker than other inhalation anesthetics?
  4. What is patient-controlled analgesia?

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