Life in a World Without Anesthesia

A Physician Describes His Own Leg Amputation
I at once agreed to submit to the operation, but asked a week to prepare for it, not with the slightest expectation that the disease would take a favorable turn in the interval, or that the anticipated horrors of the operation would become less appalling by reflection upon them, but simply because it was so probable that the operation would be followed by a fatal issue that I wished to prepare for death, and what lies beyond it, whilst my faculties were clear and my emotions were completely undisturbed.

19th Century SurgeryThe week, so slow and yet so swift in passage, at length came to an end; and the morning of the operation arrived. The operation was a more tedious one than some which involve much greater mutilations. It necessitated cruel cutting through inflamed and morbidly sensitive parts, and could not be dispatched by a few strokes of the knife.

Of the agony it occasioned I will say nothing. Suffering was so great as I underwent cannot be expressed in words, and thus fortunately cannot be recalled. The particular pangs are now forgotten, but the blank whirlwind of emotion, the horror of great darkness, and the sense of desertion by God and man, bordering close upon despair which swept through my mind and overwhelmed my heart, I can never forget, however gladly I would do so. Only the wish to save others of my suffering makes me deliberately recall and confess the anguish and humiliation of such a personal experience. I still recall with unwelcome vividness the spreading out of the instruments, the twisting of the tourniquet, the first incision, the fingering of the sawed bone, the sponge pressed on the flap, the tying of the blood vessels, the stitching of the skin, and the bloody dismembered limb lying on the floor. Those are not pleasant remembrances.

A Woman Describes Her Mastectomy (1811)
My dearest Esther, and all my dears to whom she communicates this doleful ditty, will rejoice to hear that this resolution [to have surgery] once taken, was firmly adhered to, in defiance of the terror that surpasses all dreadful steel was plunged into the breast - cutting through veins - arteries - flesh - nerves - I needed no injunctions not to restrain my cries. I began a scream that lasted unintermittingly during the whole time of the incision - and I almost marvel that it rings not in my ears still so excruciating was the agony. When the wound was made, and the instrument withdrawn, the pain seemed undiminished, for the air that suddenly rushed into those delicate parts felt like a mass of minute but sharp and forked poniards, that were tearing the edges of the wound - but when I felt the instrument, describing a curve, cutting against the grain if I may say, while the flesh resisted…I thought I must have expired…The instrument this second time withdrawn, I concluded the operation over - Oh no! presently the terrible cutting was renewed - and worse than ever…

To conclude, the evil was so profound, the case so delicate, and the precautions necessary for preventing a return so numerous, that the operation, including the treatment and the dressing, lasted 20 minutes! A time, for suffering so acute, that was hardly supportable - however, I bore it with all the courage I could exert, and never moved, nor stopt them, nor resisted.