A Blessing in Disguise: The Misuse of Anaesthesia

Often any discussion on anaesthesia focuses its benefits, on the fact that it is undoubtedly one of the greatest discoveries in medical history, and on grisly stories of the time before, when surgeons could saw off a limb in mere seconds. But what of the dark side of anaesthesia? In the 19th century, doctors used morphine, opium and cocaine to induce anaesthesia and in the 20th and 21st, several public figures have died as a result of overdose on anaesthetic or analgesic drugs.

This exhibition, displayed in the Heritage Centre in 2011-2012, shows how various substances, such as cocaine or morphine, were used from the earliest times to modern day, sometimes with disastrous effects. It looks at the origins of these powerful drugs, how they have been developed through history for medical use, but how they have also been misused.

A nitrous oxide party in the 19th century.
A nitrous oxide party in the 19th century.

Anaesthetic drugs have been used through the ages recreationally and often before their medical  use was discovered, as in the case of ether frolics. In the wrong hands, they have been used as murder weapons. They have been used to execute criminals and as a torture method. The exhibition illustrates the risks of addiction and overdose with celebrities, including Michael Jackson and Heath Ledger, dying from prescription pills and drug overdoses.

Modern day anaesthesic medicine is controlled by strict safety standards.  Anaesthetists undergo nine years of training to learn how to administer these drugs safely.  They are medically trained doctors and form the largest specialty group in NHS hospitals.

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