“Turn the key deftly in the oiled wards, / and seal the hushed Casket of my Soul.”
A poet lies entranced on a bed of grass. A patient on an operating table finds oblivion in a gas. What does poetic inspiration have in common with inhalational anesthesia? Amazingly, it is not known how either of them works.
Unlike its peers Medicine and Surgery, the discipline of Anesthesia might not be essential to life; but as is the case with Poetry, life would be brutal indeed without it. Before general anesthesia was invented, undergoing an operation was sometimes a matter of being strapped down with several shots of whiskey. It wasn't until the turn of the nineteenth century that the chemist Humphry Davy propounded the pain-killing properties of nitrous oxide. Dentist Horace Wells introduced "laughing gas" to clinical practice, which in turn inspired dentist William T. G. Morton to try sulfuric ether. General anesthesia then received worldwide notice when Morton demonstrated the use of ether at Massachusetts General Hospital in 1846. The term “anesthesia” was coined by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., both a physician and a writer of verse, who proposed the word in a letter to Morton after having considered and rejected five clunkier names.
Morton had dubbed his drug “Letheon,” a mythical name that would have found favor with another nineteenth-century luminary: the poet John Keats, who wrote of sinking "Lethe-wards," away from "the weariness, the fever, and the fret." Keats originally studied to become a physician, and if he had gone to medical school today, there is no doubt in my mind that he would have become an anesthesiologist. His well-known fascination with Nature and her flora is closely rivaled by an apparent obsession with sleep:
- “A sleep / full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing” (Endymion)
- “Drows’d with the fume of poppies” (To Autumn)
- "And there she lulled me asleep" (La Belle Dame Sans Merci)
- “As though of hemlock I had drunk / or emptied some dull opiate to the drains” (Ode to a Nightingale)
- “Enshaded in forgetfulness divine” (To Sleep)
- “My pulse grew less and less; / pain had no sting” (Ode on Indolence)
- “What is... / More healthful than the leafiness of dales? / More secret than a nest of nightingales? / ... / What, but thee Sleep?” (Sleep and Poetry)
There's more: In his “Ode to Fanny,” when Keats calls upon “physician Nature,” it brings to mind the herbal anesthetics employed by medieval surgeons, who laid on their patients’ faces a sponge soaked in opium and mandrake extract. As it turned out, the latter contains scopolamine.
It may be no accident that the word "inspiration" comes from the Latin for "inhale." As a poet or an anesthesiologist could tell you, the key to achieving a blissfully altered state of consciousness is to lie back, close your eyes — and breathe in.
Miller RD, Eriksson LI, Fleisher LA. Anesthesia, 7th ed. Saint Louis: Elsevier, 2009.
Todd P, ed. When the Night Doth Meet the Noon: Poems by John Keats. London: Pavilion Books Ltd., 1996.