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The effect of the First World War (1914–1918) on the development of British anaesthesia*

  • N. H. Metcalfe (a1)


One of the greatest but also most unfortunate ironies in life is how modern medicine owes some of its existence to the deadly cancer of war. For those whose image of armed conflict is one of disease, death and destruction, this will no doubt be a surprise. However, these very conditions have allowed military surgeons and physicians unparalleled opportunities to experiment and develop using large and dependent populations of potential patients. The catalyzing effect of war has seen the ambulance, the hospital, plastic surgery, preventative medicine and penicillin as just a few products whose history is linked to war. This paper examines whether anaesthesia, and in particular British anaesthesia, can be added to this list when focussing on the First World War (1914–1918). The anaesthesia that was being practiced at the outbreak of the First World War had not drastically altered from that of the mid-nineteenth century. Old anaesthetics given via basic facemasks could be performed by many doctors; specialists were rare. This situation, however, altered during the First World War. This is because the vast number of wounded in the war demanded the introduction of casualty clearing stations to help triage and treat the wounded quickly and efficiently. The workload of these ‘mini hospitals’ created specialist anaesthetist posts within the military. Once in place, the anaesthetists were able to help develop the relatively new concepts of blood transfusion and resuscitation. These were recognized to be vital against shock, something that had previously not been well researched or understood. While at the casualty clearing stations, Geoffrey Marshall readdressed this by studying the effects of different anaesthetic agents in varying amounts of shock. This work led to the popularity of nitrous oxide, ether and oxygen, which in turn stimulated interest in anaesthesia machines. Finally, the treating of facial wounds in casualties at the Queen’s Hospital for facial and jaw injuries at Sidcup, highlighted the possibility of endotracheal intubation, a technique that had a drastic effect on the administration of anaesthetics. Although there were no new wonder anaesthetics, something which would not occur until the neuromuscular blocking drugs of the 1940s, many of these concepts moved into civilian anaesthesia and enabled British anaesthesia to be at the forefront of anaesthesia development for much of the twentieth century.


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Correspondence to: Neil H. Metcalfe, 4 Philadelphia Terrace, South Bank, York, YO23 1DH, UK. E-mail:


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Based on a presentation on the occasion of the final of the John Bullough Prize 2005 at the Sixth International Symposium on the History of Anaesthesia in Cambridge University in September 2005.



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The effect of the First World War (1914–1918) on the development of British anaesthesia*

  • N. H. Metcalfe (a1)


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