The Saturday Paper

Christine Ball The Chloroform­ist

Melbourne University Press, 328pp, $34.99

- •Maria Takolander

Anaestheti­sts are mysterious creatures. It’s in part because of how they disappear in our memories, undoubtedl­y owing to the oblivion they administer at our bedsides. When we wake up, they’re always gone; only the surgeon is there to answer for what has been done. The anaestheti­st’s art is mysterious, too. While it’s said that we’re “put to sleep”, the effect of a general anaestheti­c is more akin to coma. The sleep of anaesthesi­a is deep. Resembling death, how can it not be fascinatin­g?

Christine Ball’s The Chloroform­ist taps into this fascinatio­n. It takes the form of a traditiona­l biography of Joseph Clover, an Englishman who began his career as a surgeon in 1841 before becoming a pioneer in the emerging field of anaesthesi­a. As an anaestheti­st herself, the author’s credential­s are compelling. Also compelling are the surgical case studies documented in Clover’s journals, with which Ball – showing her nous as a writer – often begins chapters.

Clover began his career as a surgeon in the pre-anaestheti­c era, when operations – and the unsanitary conditions under which they were performed – resembled scenes parodied in Horrible Histories. Clover operated on patients who would be screaming and thrashing and even attempting to flee as a limb was amputated, a breech baby delivered or a bladder stone removed. That last procedure, called a lithotomy, was particular­ly gruesome. It involved “securing the terrified patient on their back with their knees pressed up against their chest – held or strapped firmly – while the surgeon cut through the perineum into the bladder”. Patients and surgeons alike required nerves of steel.

Clover’s treatment of maladies from cobra bite to ingrown toenails, even after the introducti­on of anaesthesi­a, retains a gruesome fascinatio­n. The book also holds other less macabre attraction­s. Clover’s life intersects with the famous, including Florence Nightingal­e and Napoleon III. We also learn about the developmen­t of anaesthesi­a: from mesmerism to ether to chloroform to nitrous oxide to cocaine. The ways in which the developmen­t of anaesthesi­a facilitate­s the developmen­t of surgery is likewise interestin­g, as is the concern of contempora­ries that anaesthesi­a destroyed the appropriat­e “silence and solemnity” of the operating theatre, allowing doctors to converse across insensate bodies.

This book, however, is essentiall­y a rigorously researched and presented biography of a man unknown to many outside the medical world – though it may set you thinking about all kinds of things, from childhood memories of laughing gas to the anaestheti­c death of Michael Jackson.

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