Another reason for the medical community’s initial resistance to anesthesia was that it threatened to upset what had always been considered “normal” surgical procedures. Surgery was traditionally performed on a conscious patient, one who was able to communicate and express pain to his or her surgeon. Surgeons and doctors would use their patients’ reactions—either by asking them questions or listening carefully to their wails and cries—to help guide their surgeries. Removing this element from the act of surgery seemed strange and unnatural to some—like removing one of their senses.
Mütter was dismayed that something he considered a gift from God could be seen as an evil by his peers and contemporaries. The strong feelings against the use of anesthesia went much deeper than just a gentleman’s disagreement about its use. Institutions began to take public stances against it. The board of Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania Hospital—the main hospital with which Jefferson Medical College had a working relationship—successfully voted to ban all use of the surgical anesthesia for seven years. Even worse for Mütter, one of anesthesia’s most outspoken critics would emerge among his own faculty: Charles D. Meigs.
Change is glacial in healthcare. Anything new always, always meets resistance. To learn more about this, please read the biography of Thomas Mütter, Dr. Mutter’s Medical Marvels, which includes that passage. It’s one of my favorite books of all time. Mütter was one of the fathers of modern medicine. Simply a fascinating man, mostly for his desire to push the profession forward while being known as one of the great medical lecturers of all time.
I’ve seen this resistance firsthand multiple times. Since 2007, I’ve been doing everything I can to update how doctors and patients communicate. I spoke about this many years ago in this TED talk. In 2016 the resistance has lightened, but it surely hasn’t stopped. Persistence and rational, vocal arguments builds coalitions. But it takes time. Hang in there everyone. While slow, we’re building something far better. Please don’t forget that.