Esthesia: History of Anesthesia, Part 2 of 3

(the mandragora, or mandrake, plant was used as an anesthesia)

The Mandragora Plant—Myths and other Information

The mandragora, or mandrake, plant has a long tap-root that is usually bifid (has a split root) and has a rough resemblance to that of a human form. The anthropological shape evidently was responsible for the superstition that it shrieked when it was uprooted and that its scream brought about the death of those who heard it, or, if it didn’t actually kill them, it caused them to go insane.

Because of the fear of death or insanity from pulling mandragora from the ground, the root was merely loosened by the collector and he/she attached a cord to the collar of his/her dog. With the dog’s struggle to get away, the root was freed from the earth. An old document declares, “Therefore, they did tye some dogge or other living beast unto the roots thereof with a corde ... and in the mean tyme stopped there own ears for fear of the terrible shriek and cry of the mandrake. In which cry it doth not only dye itselfe but the feare thereof killeth the dogge . . . .”

Mandragora was the most popular anaesthetic during the Middle Ages and in the Elizabethan Age it was still being used as a narcotic.

Medieval physicians analyzed symptoms, examined excreta, and made their diagnoses. Then they might prescribe diet, rest, sleep, exercise, or baths; or they could administer emetics and purgatives or bleed the patient. Surgeons could treat fractures and dislocations, repair hernias, and perform amputations and a few other operations. Some of them prescribed opium, mandragora, or alcohol to deaden pain. Childbirth was left to midwives, who relied on folklore and tradition.

The mandrake has long been known for its poisonous properties. In ancient times it was used as a narcotic and an aphrodisiac, and it was also believed to have certain magical powers. Its forked root, seemingly resembling the human form, was thought to be in the power of dark earth spirits. It was believed that the mandrake could be safely uprooted only in the moonlight, after appropriate prayer and ritual, by a black dog attached to the plant by a cord.

Human hands were not to come in contact with the plant. In medieval times it was thought that as the mandrake was pulled from the ground it uttered a shriek that killed or drove mad those who did not block their ears against it. After the plant had been freed from the earth, it could be used for “beneficent” purposes, such as healing, inducing love, facilitating pregnancy, and providing soothing sleep.

Dioscorides (A.D. 40-90), a Greek physician and pharmacologist whose work was the foremost classical source of modern botanical terminology and the leading pharmacological text for sixteen centuries.

Dioscorides’ travels as a surgeon with the armies of the Roman emperor Nero provided him an opportunity to study the features, distribution, and medicinal properties of many plants and minerals. Excellent descriptions of nearly 600 plants, including cannabis, colchicum, water hemlock, and peppermint, are contained in his De materia medica. Written in five books around the year 77, this work deals with approximately 1,000 simple drugs.

The medicinal and dietetic value of animal derivatives such as milk and honey is described in the second book, and a synopsis of such chemical drugs as mercury (with directions for its preparation from cinnabar), arsenic (referred to as auripigmentum, the yellow arsenic sulfide), lead acetate, calcium hydrate, and copper oxide is found in the fifth book. He clearly refers to sleeping potions prepared from opium and mandragora as surgical anesthetics “to such (people) as shall be cut, or cauteried .... For they do not apprehend the pain because they are overborn (overcome) with dead sleep .... But used too much they make men speechless.”

Although the work may be considered little more than a drug collector’s manual by modern standards, the original Greek manuscript, which was copied in at least seven other languages, describes most drugs used in medical practice until modern times and served as the primary text of pharmacology until the end of the 15th century.

—Compiled from information located in the following sources:

The Story of Medicine by Kenneth Walker;
Oxford University Press; New York; 1955; pages 214-216

"Nitrous Oxide and Ether as Anesthetics"; Serendipity, Accidental Discoveries in Science
by Royston M. Roberts; John Wiley & Sons, Inc.; New York; 1989; pages 37-40.

"Anesthetics", Edited by Edward De Bono; Eureka!;
Holt, Rinehart and Winston; New York; 1974; page 154.

"Anesthetic", Stories Behind Everyday Things;
The Reader's Digest Association, Inc.; Pleasantvile, New York; 1980; page 20.

Arrow pointing to words and info sections Esthesia: History of Anesthesia, Part 3 of 3.

Arrow pointing to word info word unit You will find many other words and definitions about esthesia or "feeling" words by going to this list of esthesia unit of words.

Arrow pointing to words and info sections The index of anesthesia history, Parts 1, 2, and 3.