The Evolution of Anesthesia: From Cocaine to Modern Techniques


The practice of surgery has evolved significantly over the years, thanks to groundbreaking discoveries in the field of anesthesia. While the use of ether and chloroform marked the first revolution in surgical practice, a quieter yet equally transformative revolution was on the horizon – the discovery of local anesthesia. This article delves into the historical development of local anesthesia, its pioneers, and the subsequent advancements in the field.

Table 1: Early Observations of Cocaine’s Anesthetic Properties

1862von SchroffCocaine numbed the tongue
1873Alexander BennettDemonstrated anesthetic properties of cocaine
1887CorningIntroduced regional anesthesia with cocaine
1890RitsertIdentified benzocaine as an alternative
1904Alfred EinhornSynthesized procaine
1908BierIntroduced intravenous regional anesthesia

Table 2: Evolution of Anesthetic Substances

Anesthetic SubstanceYear of DiscoveryProperties
Ether and Chloroform19th CenturyFirst revolution in surgery
Cocaine19th CenturyBirth of local anesthesia
Benzocaine1890Limited to topical anesthesia
Procaine1904Widely used local anesthetic
Amylocaine1903Briefly used in spinal anesthesia

The Cocaine Connection

The journey of local anesthesia began in the 19th century with the curious observations of early researchers. In 1862, von Schroff noted that cocaine had numbing effects on the tongue, although he did not immediately connect this observation to surgical applications. Similarly, in 1873, Alexander Bennett demonstrated the anesthetic properties of cocaine but failed to realize its potential in surgery. It was not until the late 1880s that significant progress was made.

Sigmund Freud and Carl Koller, while at the Vienna General Hospital, conducted experiments with cocaine. Koller’s colleague, Engel, accidentally discovered the numbing effect of cocaine when he licked it off the blade of his penknife. Koller recognized the potential and conducted experiments that confirmed cocaine’s ability to induce local anesthesia. This discovery marked the birth of local anesthesia and led to rapid advancements in the field.

The Spread of Local Anesthesia

Koller presented his findings in a report to the Heidelberg Ophthalmological Society in 1884. This revelation quickly gained recognition and spread throughout the medical community, paralleling the speed with which the news of ether’s discovery had spread several decades earlier. Surgeons were eager to embrace this new tool as it allowed them to control both anesthesia and surgery effectively.

In 1887, Corning took the concept further by introducing regional anesthesia, which involved injecting cocaine into specific nerves. This innovation paved the way for ordinary and great surgeons, such as William Halsted, to perform peripheral nerve blocks, expanding the applications of local anesthesia.

Challenges and Advances

While the adoption of local anesthesia was swift and transformative, it was not without challenges. In the late 1880s and 1890s, concerns arose regarding the central nervous system and cardiac toxicity associated with cocaine’s expanded use. This prompted a search for safer alternatives. Given that cocaine was a benzoic acid ester, research efforts focused on compounds within this class.

In 1890, benzocaine was identified as a potential alternative, but its poor water solubility limited its use to topical anesthesia. It wasn’t until 1904 that a more effective benzoic acid ester, procaine, was synthesized. Despite its brief duration of action and the emergence of allergic sensitivities, procaine became a widely used local anesthetic.

Spinal Anesthesia Takes Center Stage

Spinal anesthesia, which had been developed by Corning in 1885, gained popularity thanks to the work of Bier in the late 1890s. In 1897, Bier administered the first spinal “block” in Germany, primarily in obstetrics and gynecology. Though initially met with skepticism due to reported side effects, Bier’s work eventually led to widespread acceptance of spinal anesthesia. Cocaine was initially used, followed by Amylocaine (stovaine) in 1903, until it was replaced by procaine in 1904 due to its nerve irritant properties.

Controlling the Spread

In 1907, AE Barker addressed a key issue in spinal anesthesia – the uncontrolled spread of anesthesia levels. Barker introduced the concept of controlling the baricity, or weight, of the anesthetic-containing liquid injected into the spinal fluid. This innovation allowed for precise control of the level of anesthesia, enhancing the safety and effectiveness of the procedure.

Intravenous Regional Anesthesia

In 1908, Bier introduced another innovation, “intravenous regional anesthesia.” This technique involved using a tourniquet to isolate a limb from its circulation while injecting a local anesthetic into the venous portion of the isolated limb. This technique remains in use today and has proven effective for various surgical procedures.

The Shadow of Addiction

One dark shadow looming over the early use of cocaine as an anesthetic was its addictive nature. Many physicians who administered cocaine found themselves addicted, mirroring the historical struggles with substances like chloroform and morphine. Commercialization in the 1890s increased the risk of addiction, with products like Coca Cola and “vin Mariani” containing cocaine.


The discovery of local anesthesia, driven by pioneers like Carl Koller and Sigmund Freud, marked a significant turning point in the history of surgery. It empowered surgeons to perform procedures with precision and control, ultimately benefiting patients worldwide. Despite early challenges, advances in local anesthetics and techniques have continued to shape modern surgical practice, making procedures safer and more efficient. The quest for better pain management and anesthesia methods remains an ongoing endeavor, reflecting the ever-evolving nature of medicine.

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