Going under

I’ve just found a curious historical article discussing the early debates over whether anaesthesia could trigger sexual dreams in patients. As this was Britain in the 1800s, much of the fuss was centred on whether the Victorian lady was actually capable of such things:

In January, 1849, a discussion of ‚ÄúChloroform in Midwifery‚Äù occurred during a meeting of the Westminster Medical Society in England. One of the physicians, Dr. G. T. Gream (Obstetrician, Queen Charlotte‚Äôs Lying-In Hospital, London, England) enumerated several reasons why he did not think that chloroform was appropriate for obstetric use, and in so doing, he ‚Äúalluded to several cases in which women had, under the influence of chloroform, made use of obscene and disgusting language. This latter fact alone he considered sufficient to prevent the use of chloroform in English women‚Äù…

In a subsequent issue of The Lancet, notes from the Medico-Chirurgical Society of Edinburgh of February 7, 1849, were published. Sir James Young Simpson (Obstetrician, Edinburgh, Scotland, developer of chloroform anesthesia, and President of the Royal College of Physicians in 1849; 1811–1870) stated that after 15 months of use in thousands of cases, “he had never seen, nor had he ever heard of any other person having seen, any manifestation of sexual excitement result from the exhibition of chloroform…. The excitement, he was inclined to think, existed not in the individuals anesthetized, but was the result of impressions harbored in the minds of the practitioners, not in the minds of the chloroformed.”

Of course, there are some cases of criminal clinicians who have used sedation to attack their patients, but we now know that some modern anaesthetics, particularly midazolam and propofol, really do seem to be involved in causing sexual hallucinations and imagery in patients.

As far as I know, the reason why certain anaesthetics spark sexual imagery is still a mystery.

As we discussed earlier this year, the introduction of anaesthesia was controversial, partly because of the belief that pain was useful in keeping people alive and partly because experiencing pain was considered morally virtuous.

Link to PubMed entry for paper.

1 thought on “Going under”

  1. you might be interested in an article by Mary Poovey, “Scenes of an indelicate character” in which she addresses similar issues.

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