Free Settler or Felon
Convict and Colonial History

Surgery and Anaesthetic at Port Stephens


Nitrous oxide was discovered by English scientist Joseph Priestly in 1772, however it wasn't used as an anaesthetic until Horace Wells, a dentist from the United States, put his observations and experiments into use. Unfortunately the first operation, performed under public scrutiny was not a success, as the patient was heard to call out - Wells had not administered enough gas. Undaunted he continued, operating on 12 - 15 patients in November 1844. He made his discovery known to Drs. Warren, Hayward, Jackson and Morton in Boston.

On 16th October 1846 at Massachusetts Hospital, dentist William Morton, demonstrated the use of ether during surgery. He used a specially designed glass inhaler containing an ether-soaked sponge to render Gilbert Abbot unconscious while the surgeon John Warren removed a tumour from Abbot's neck. The news of this exciting event spread quickly.

Surgery until this time had been performed only as a necessity, a last desperate resort. Although attempts were made to dull sensation; soporifics and narcotics manufactured from a variety of plants, hypnosis, distraction or even rendering the patient unconscious by a blow to the head, nothing compared with the freedom of pain that ether produced.

Prior to this a good surgeon was one who could perform the operation in the shortest time. Surgery and the pain involved were looked upon with overwhelming dread. Many would endure horrific medical conditions rather than being strapped down to endure the indescribable pain of surgery. Patients would faint from the ordeal - and death, either during the operation or after, came often. With the advent of ether much of this suffering could end.

In June 1847, in Australia eight months after Morton's demonstration, anaesthetic was first administered in Sydney and Launceston, the doctors using apparatus they had copied from the Illustrated London News.

Port Stephens

At the Australian Agricultural Company settlement at Port Stephens in New South Wales, Colin Buchanan with the assistance of James Douglas administered ether to a patient suffering an aneurism and requiring immediate surgery. Dr. Buchanan must have read of the discovery of the benefits of ether, but as can be seen from the article below, no illustrations were available to him to copy. His assistant, Fletcher made some instruments necessary for the operation and Buchanan used an implement of his own devise similar to that used for nitrous oxide, to administer the ether.

Although Dr. Buchanan had requested an aneurism needle from Company manager, Phillip Parker King the needle had not been forwarded. Medical equipment was probably in short supply in the settlement and King had been under constant pressure from the Company Directors to reduce costs and increase revenue throughout his tenure with the Company. King's term with the Company co-incided with the depression of the 1840's, the end of convict assignment and a drought; no doubt medical equipment would have been low on the list of company expenditure.

Painless Surgery - Maitland Mercury 21 July 1847 p 4

The following extract from a letter from Dr. Colin Buchanan, of Port Stephens, to Captain King, describing an operation performed upon a patient who had inhaled ether, has been handed to us for publication. It will be seen that it corroborates all that has been said in favour of this important discovery:

"I wrote you on the 21st about a man named Hickey, who was brought into the Company's Hospital with popliteal aneurism, and requesting you to make inquiry about his being admitted into the General Hospital, in Sydney; or should there be any difficulty about that, to send me up an aneurismal needle etc and I would operate here. Finding that the aneurismal tumour continued to increase very rapidly, and the man suffering great pain, I thought it would be better to operate at all hazards, as the conveying him to Sydney might be attended with risks, I got Fletcher to make me an aneurismal needle and a pair of retractors, which answered the purpose very well.

I performed the operation, and not being aware of the kind of apparatus used for the inhalation of ether, I tried the simple bladder with mouthpiece, similar to what is used in the inhalation of nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, which answered the purpose admirably (I must tell you that I first tried it on myself, which convinced me as to its efficacy). When everything was ready for the operation, the patient was made tin inhale the ether, which appeared to have little effect for nearly ten minutes, when the limbs became suddenly rigid and contracted (the very opposite of what I wanted); immediately, however, he fell back apparently quite insensible, and the rigidity entirely ceased. I then made my first cut, which caused the slightest twitch of the leg, but nothing more; the artery y was cut down and tied in the usual way, the patient breathing all the time as in a deep sleep. After the operation of tying the artery was over, which took about five minutes, and while the wound was being brought together with straps, he rallied and looked at first confused; he was then carried into bed, and upon being questioned as to how he felt during the operation, he said he knew perfectly well what we were doing, but he did not suffer the slightest pain. I am happy to say the man is doing remarkably well ,the tumour is reduced and not the slightest pulsation indiscernible. Dr. Douglas, who assisted me, says he could not perceive the slightest change in the pulse during the time he was under the influence of the ether.