The Flying Death and Other Adventures in Anesthesia

It is amazing to think that curare, a poison sometimes known as “The Flying Death” and used on the tips of darts and arrows by indigenous people of South America, could prove to be an important stepping stone in the path to modern anesthesia. But then again, curare is not a simple poison, but actually a powerful muscle relaxant; after injection, an animal that has been shot with a curare-tipped dart can actually be kept alive through artificial respiration. More importantly to the native tribes—as they would not have needed to resuscitate their dinners—curare brings about paralysis and asphyxiation when injected (either by dart, arrow, or needle), but is not poisonous if ingested.

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A native tribesman demonstrating his prowess with a blowgun typically used with curare darts. Clip taken from Richard Gill’s film “White Water and Black Magic”.

Curare was first brought to the United States by Richard Gill, an American living in Ecuador, in 1938. Gill had become interested in the medicinal uses of curare after falling off his horse and developing neurological symptoms including spasticity. After being told about curare by his neurologist, Gill sought out and befriended a tribe who used the arrow poison. The indigenous people then showed him how to procure and use it, and Gill eventually returned to the US with approximately 25 pounds of curare paste.

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Richard Gill sitting with a native tribesman while watching another tribesman cook down curare. Clip also taken from “White Water and Black Magic”.

Medical experiments with curare began as early as the 19th century, but its use in anesthesia didn’t start until the mid-20th century, after Gill had introduced it in the US. One of its first uses was to prevent bone fractures brought about by spasms during electro-convulsive therapy. Since it is such a powerful muscle relaxant, curare proved helpful for tracheal intubation, and in keeping the patients’ muscles relaxed during operative procedures. It also lessened the need for the use of deep general anesthesia during highly invasive operations, like abdominal or thoracic surgeries.

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1943 cartoon by Clark Haas depicting Richard Gill visiting native peoples to obtain more curare. Arthur Guedel collection, MSS 2016-03.

Despite its usefulness in relaxing patients, curare has no analgesic (painkilling) or anesthetic qualities. This was proven in the 1940s, after curare was given to some infants and children as the sole anesthetic agent during operative procedures. The patients who were old enough to communicate complained that they had felt everything during the surgery but were unable to move or cry out about the excruciating pain they were feeling. Upon hear this, anesthesiologist Dr. Scott Smith volunteered to take the drug in order to test whether curare did have any pain-relieving qualities. He became paralyzed but reported that the reduction of painful sensations was not impacted. Like the young patients before him, Smith had felt everything, but had not been able to move to stop it.

Highlights from the Photograph Collection – Lost on the Shelf

You never know what you’re going to find in an archives office. While the idealized vision is probably a mirror-image of the storage vault, with its neat rows of gray manuscript boxes and acid-free record cartons, this is almost never the case. Any flat surface can become a not-so-temporary resting place for the odd accession or accrual, or the item that was removed from its collection for research or exhibit, but has yet to find its way back to its proper housing.

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This photograph of an early 20th-century surgical procedure was found a few weeks ago on top of one of our many filing cabinets. Who knows how it ended up there—or how long it had been waiting to be found again. Luckily, it carried a notation that it was from the Julius Comroe collection and the carton dedicated to illustrations for his book, Exploring the Heart. Looking at his notes, it is evident that Comroe had intended to use this photograph as the first illustration in his chapter on open heart surgery, but had later opted to use the Thomas Eakins painting, “The Agnew Clinic,” instead. Unfortunately there are no other notations or attributions on the photograph or its folder to tell us more about it, but at least this orphan work has found its way home—and we were given this opportunity to share it.

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“The Agnew Clinic” by Thomas Eakins, courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania: http://www.archives.upenn.edu/histy/features/1800s/1889med/agnewclinic.html

Accessions & Additions – Summer Edition

We’re always busy accepting new collections and pushing through our backlog to make as many collections available for research as possible. This list of new records includes materials relating to tobacco control, UCSF, infectious disease, pediatrics, nursing education, HIV/AIDS Toland Hall murals, book collecting, medical education, and more. Click on the titles below to learn more the contents, subjects, and size of these collections.

Contact us if you have any questions or would like to learn more. And please don’t hesitate to make an appointment to come in and use the collections!

Our catalog updates over the past six months:

The following collections have inventories or finding aids on the Online Archive of California: