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Profitable Wonders: A knockout victory over pain

Regulars | By James Le Fanu | January 2018

James Le Fanu examines the history of anaesthesia

It is impossible to imagine the agonies of surgery before anaesthesia. The writer Fanny Burney’s harrowing account of her mastectomy – performed by Napoleon’s surgeon-in-chief Dominique Larry – is a terrifying reminder.  ‘When the dreadful steel was plunged into my breast, I began a scream that lasted uninterruptedly and I am amazed it rings not in my ears still,’ she wrote. ‘I then felt the knife scraping against my breast bone and thought I must have expired… my eyes hermetically shut, such that the eyelids seemed indented into my cheeks.’  Six months later, she confided to her sister Esther, ‘I dare not revise, nor read [her account of the operation]; the recollection is still so painful.’ Fanny Burney’s ordeal has a particularly poignant resonance for having been, in retrospect, quite unnecessary. A decade earlier, in 1800, a brilliant young Cornish chemist, Humphry Davy, had demonstrated unequivocally the anaesthetic properties of...

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