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Why Do Surgeons Spray Ether on Skin?

Imagine how painful surgeries would be without anesthesia. Without any painkillers, surgical patients will feel every cut and incision during the operation.

If paper cuts and minor house knife injuries hurt, think about the sensation of having a knife slice you open, having your organs moved by hand, and needles pass through your flesh during stitching.

But before the 19th century, this is what surgical patients endured. What seemed to be a life-saving procedure ended up being hours of torture, unbearable pain, and dreadful screaming.

Fortunately, anesthetics revolutionized surgery and the lives of patients who need them. One of the chemicals first used as painkillers was diethyl ether (or ether).

Although ether is not used anymore in most countries since the 1960s, ether was applied to the patients’ skin as a primary anesthetic agent.

In this article, you will learn why surgeons sprayed diethyl ether on the skin, the applications of this anesthetic chemical, and why it is unused already.

How is ether used?

Ether is a solvent now used in manufacturing dyes and plastics. But in surgical settings, ether is inhaled for it to take effect.

When ether was used for the first time as an anesthetic during the American Civil War, physicians invented glass globes with a pipe where the patient can inhale the anesthetic fumes.

But, eventually, ether was no longer directly inhaled. Instead, surgeons apply it to the patient’s skin until it becomes a gas.

Since the boiling point of ether is only 35°C, it can quickly evaporate into vapor at the patient’s body temperature. This fume will then be breathed in, making the patient feel no pain and aches during the surgical procedure.

This fact shows why, decades ago, surgeons spray ether on the patients’ skin before making the incision.

Scientists and physicians have not yet determined how diethyl ether takes effect. But they believe that this chemical interacts with the membranes and channels of the central nervous system.

The benefits of ether

Since 1842, when ether was first used during a neck tumor surgery, this chemical has been known as a safe yet cheap anesthetic.

Rural hospitals and health centers benefit from this less expensive chemical, making these small facilities self-sufficient and sufficiently equipped with anesthesia.

Ether can even be distilled from ethanol to decrease costs even more.

Yes, ether is not immune to the risk of side effects as listed by the 2016 Meyler’s Side Effect of Drugs. The smell of ether can cause coughing, throat spasms, nausea, and vomiting.

There are even cases of allergies and dermatitis from the chemical. In worst and relatively rare cases,  ether can cause liver damage, intracranial pressure, and convulsions.


Despite these, ether was considered safe and relatively harmless for most surgical patients. This chemical brings lesser liver damage than other anesthetics. For example, halothane is banned in the United States for causing halothane hepatitis.

Why ether is not used anymore?

But ether has one major flaw that made it obsolete: ether is dangerously flammable. Since it has a low boiling point (even lower than the average person’s body heat), ether is sensitive and volatile.

The study released by the Boston Medical Center Anesthesiology Department shows that ether is notorious for causing fires and explosions. This factor made ether lose the favor of hospitals and surgeons when chemists developed new alternatives for anesthesia.

Despite this, many rural hospitals outside the Western hemisphere still choose to use ether as an anesthetic for its benefits mentioned earlier.

To address the flammability of ether, they conduct strategies and safety measures:

  • All open flames from burners, matches, and lamps are prohibited in areas where ether is stored and applied.
  • High-frequency coagulation and cautery should be kept away from the patient with an ether unless the surgeon applies wet drapes.
  • Ether should be placed within dark glass bottles away from sunlight. 

The history of ether

It is valuable to know the history of ether to understand why ether revolutionized surgery and why it is applied to the skin.

Diethyl ether was first used in botany in 1540 Prussia. Valerius Corduz produced this by crafting a vitriol oil with fortified wine. But ether was rarely used anywhere else.

In the next three centuries, ether served as a recreational drug in Britain and Poland and a substitute for traditional alcohol. Americans also used ether to experience euphoria, hallucinations, and bliss until they faint.

One of the young men who used ether this way was Dr. Crawford Williamson Long. When he was still a student, Long noticed that he did not feel pain from his injuries and bruises while he was under the influence of ether.

On March 30, 1842, Long put ether to the test in the medical and pharmaceutical setting. He applied ether as an anesthetic agent during neck surgery. It was successful—the patient did not feel pain during the operation.

This finding sparked the birth of the science of anesthesiology. Gone were the days when surgeries were a horrifying experience. Patients no longer screamed in extreme pain. Instead, they felt numb and relieved during the surgical treatment.

On October 16, 1846, ether was successfully demonstrated in the dental setting by Dr. William Morton.

Eventually, he discovered that spraying ether on the skin also makes the patient feel numb during surgeries. It is a working substitute for making the patient directly inhale the concentrated ether.

Through more demonstrations in universities, hospitals, and conferences that year, ether became standard practice in surgery. Because of ether’s breakthrough, in November 1846, Dr. Oliver Holmes coined the term “anesthesia” for the loss of sensation it causes.

During the American Civil War, from 1861 to 1865, ether was used by Union and Confederate army medics to relieve the soldiers’ pain from amputations and treatments.

Ether remained widely used in surgery until new hydrocarbon anesthetics were developed. These include isofluorane, sevoflurane, and enflurance.

Ether lost popularity because of its explosive and flammable nature. It forms peroxides that become volatile when exposed to oxygen or shaken.

Currently, ether is stored and kept in laboratories and factories as a solvent.

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