The Arabic anaesthetic sponge

A 1997 letter to the British Medical Journal describes an innovative surgical anesthetic used by Arabs in the middle ages that involved placing a sponge soaked in opium, hashish and scopolamine over the patient’s face.

From the ingredients, the patient was probably aware of little, let alone any pain, and it appropriately features in the dreamy Middle Eastern classic, Arabian Nights.

Editor—Anthony John Carter’s review of sedative plants skipped several centuries and did not mention the “Arabic anaesthetic sponge.” Opium infusion was known to Arab clinicians throughout the middle ages and was used commonly to relieve pain associated with inflammation or procedures such as tooth extraction and reduction of fractures. Poppy seeds were used in oral perioperative analgesic syrups or paste; their boiled solution was often used for inhalation.

Anaesthesia by inhalation was mentioned in R Burton’s Arabian Nights, and Theodoric of Bologna (1206-98), whose name is associated with the soporific sponge, got his information from Arabic sources. The sponge was steeped in aromatics and soporifics and dried; when required it was moistened and applied to lips and nostrils. The Arabic innovation was to immerse the “anaesthetic sponge” in a boiled solution made of water with hashish (from Arabic hasheesh), opium (from Arabic afiun), c-hyoscine (from Arabic cit al huscin) [aka scopolamine], and zo’an (Arabic for wheat infusion) acting as a carrier for active ingredients after water evaporation.


Link to full text of BMJ letter.

2 thoughts on “The Arabic anaesthetic sponge”

  1. Guys,
    Friday’s are my favorite day. Why? Because you post the weekly summation of mind & brain news…

    I’m still waiting for it. lol

    You have my favorite blog. Great Work! 8)

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