LLR Books

What’s in a Word? ‘Anesthesia’ From Ancient Greece to 1846, and Beyond

by A.J. Wright

Have you ever thought about the origin of that word you say so often, “anesthesia”? Like many English words, this one has a long and complicated history. In April 1755, Samuel Johnson’s monumental A Dictionary of the English Language was finally published; the Englishman had been working on it since signing the contract in 1746. Johnson’s dictionary was hardly the first such work in English, but it remained the most authoritative until the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) was finally completed in 1928.
But the word “anaesthesia” did not appear in Johnson’s dictionary; it was in limited use in English at the time. The word had appeared in several English-language dictionaries before Johnson’s, including Phillips’ The New World of Words: or, Universal English Dictionary (6th ed., 1706), followed by Bailey’s Universal Etymological English Dictionary (1721); James’ Medical Dictionary (1743); and the New and Complete Dictionary of Arts and Sciences (1754).
The word also was known to Western readers in Latin. On July 20, 1718, Johann Bernhard Quistorp (1692-1761) appeared in the great auditorium at the University of Rostock, in Germany, to submit to a public examination of his doctoral thesis, “De Anaesthesia.” Written in Latin, Quistorp’s dissertation was published in the same year. The work was translated into English by Ray J. Defalque, MD, in 1999. The only known appearance of the word in modern Western literature before Quistorp other than in Phillips’ 1706 dictionary was in Castelli’s “Lexicon Medicum Graeco-Latinum” published in 1713; his definition was “a privation of the senses.”
 Yet the word must have been used for some decades prior; Quistorp’s work consolidates the knowledge of his time about this physiologic state. He defines anaesthesia as “a spontaneous, deep, more or less persistent loss of sensation by the whole body, except by the organs supporting the pulse and respiration. The brain is plunged into a deep, strange, more or less pleasant trance.” He describes numerous causes, including that “Vapors (fumes) entering the body may produce anaesthesia.” He notes that the term “has become accepted in the Greek and Latin medical literature.” In Chapter 1 of his dissertation, Quistorp explores seven definitions and their corollaries important to his topic.
The word was apparently coined between the 10th and fifth centuries BCE. Ancient Greek and Latin authors used it widely and with various definitions. Among the authors who used the word to denote deprivation of the senses or insensitivity to pain are Linnaeus, Epicurus, Hippocrates, Hippon and Demosthenes. Isocrates, Demosthenes and others also used the word to mean either stupidity or irresponsibility. Plato, who used the term 18 times in his writings, implied both meanings. In “Timaeus,” Plato used the word several times to indicate a condition in which an impulse does not reach the brain. Galen, a Greek physician from Asia Minor born in 141, used the word to describe “the dullness of those who think differently.” In his “Ethics,” Aristotle defined it as the opposite of “debauchery and prudence.” Pedanius Dioscorides, a first-century military physician under the Roman emperors Claudius and Nero, used the word to describe a mixture of wine and extract of the mandrake root helpful for treating insomnia, chronic pain and “during cutting and cautery.” Dioscorides’ “De Materia Medica,” in which this description appeared, remained in use well into the Renaissance, as did the works of Galen. Their influence in medical practice over so many centuries may account for the survival of the rather obscure word “anesthesia” and its association with a state of pain deprivation.
Throughout the rest of the 18th and early 19th centuries, the word appeared in numerous medical dictionaries and other works. In 1846, Oliver Wendell Holmes, in a famous letter, suggested the word to describe the state produced by William Morton’s ether administrations at Massachusetts General Hospital in October of that year. “This signifies insensibility, more particularly (as used by Linnaeus and Cullen) to objects of touch,” Holmes wrote, referring to the ancient Greek writer and the 18th-century physician William Cullen. The first edition of Peter Mark Roget’s eponymous thesaurus was published in England in 1852, and did not contain the word anesthesia.
After graduation from medical school in Edinburgh, Roget spent 1799 in Bristol working with Thomas Beddoes and Humphry Davy on their famous nitrous oxide research. Roget later wrote the Encyclopedia Britannica entry on Beddoes. Near the end of his life Roget published the work for which he is so well known and on which he had been working since the early 1800s. (Roget, man of many talents, also invented the slide rule and the pocket chessboard and did research on vision physiology later used as the basis for motion pictures.)
Roget’s 1854 revised edition does not contain “anaesthesia,” either. But by the 1879 edition, in the general section on “Sensation,” the following list can be found:
Physical Insensibility.—
N. insensibility, physical insensibility;
obtuseness &c. adj.\ palsy,
paralysis, anaesthesia; sleep &c-
{inactivity) 683; moral insensibility
&c. 823.
anaesthetic agent, opium, ether,
chloroform, chloral; nitrous oxide,
laughing gas; refrigeration.
The word had finally entered common usage, where it remains today. Its meaning has solidified, however; other meanings from the past have largely fallen away. The OED currently defines it as “loss of feeling or sensation,” but also notes metaphorical uses beyond those related to the physical body.