Humans have inhabited the Earth for 200,000 years, yet the discovery of surgical anesthesia was a recent development in 1846. For thousands of years most surgical procedures were accompanied by severe pain. The only strategies available to blunt pain were to give patients alcohol or opium until they were stuporous.

In the 21st Century, modern anesthesiologists utilize dozens of medications and apply sophisticated high-tech medical equipment. How did our specialty advance from prescribing patients two shots of whiskey to administering modern anesthetics?

In chronologic order, my choices for the 11 most important advances in the history of anesthesia follow below. I’ve included comments to expound on the impact of each discovery.


1846. THE DISCOVERY OF ETHER AS A GENERAL ANESTHETIC. The first public demonstration of general anesthesia occurred at Harvard’s Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts. Dr. William Morton, a local dentist, utilized inhaled ether to anesthetize patient Edward Abott.  Dr. John Warren then painlessly removed a tumor from Abbott’s neck.  Comment: This was the landmark discovery. From this point forward, painless surgery became possible.

1885. THE DISCOVERY OF INJECTABLE COCAINE AND LOCAL ANESTHESIA.  Cocaine was the first local anesthetic. Dr. William Halsted of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore first injected 4% cocaine into a patient’s forearm and concluded that cocaine blocked sensation, as the arm was numb below but not above the point of injection. The first spinal anesthetic was performed in 1885 when Dr. Leonard Corning of Germany injected cocaine between the vertebrae of a 45-year-old man and caused numbness of the patient’s legs and lower abdomen. Comment: The discovery of local anesthesia gave doctors the power to block pain in specific locations. Improved local anesthetics procaine (Novocain) and lidocaine were later discovered in 1905 and 1948, respectively.

1896. THE DISCOVERY OF THE HYPODERMIC NEEDLE, THE SYRINGE, AND THE INJECTION OF MORPHINE. Alexander Wood of Scotland invented a hollow needle that fit on the end of a piston-style syringe, and used the syringe and needle combination to successfully treat pain by injections of morphine. Comment: The majority of anesthetic drugs today are injected intravenously. Such injections would be impossible without the invention of the syringe.

1905. DISCOVERY OF THE MEASUREMENT OF BLOOD PRESSURE BY BLOOD PRESSURE CUFF. Dr. Nikolai Korotkov of Russia described the sounds produced during auscultation with a stethoscope over a distal portion of an artery as a blood pressure cuff was deflated. These Korotkoff sounds resulted in an accurate determination of systolic and diastolic blood pressure. Comment: Anesthesiologists monitor patients repeatedly during every surgery. A patient’s vital signs are the heart rate, respiratory rate, blood pressure, and temperature. It would be impossible to administer safe anesthesia without blood pressure measurement. Low blood pressures may be evidence of anesthetic overdose, excessive bleeding, or heart dysfunction. High blood pressures may be evidence of inadequate anesthetic depth, or uncontrolled hypertensive heart disease.

1913. DISCOVERY OF THE CUFFED ENDOTRACHEAL BREATHING TUBE. Sir Ivan Magill of England developed a technique of placing a breathing tube into the windpipe, and endotracheal anesthesia was born. Dr. Chevalier Jackson of Pennsylvania developed the first laryngoscope used to visualize the larynx and insert an endotracheal tube. Drs. Arthur Guedel and Ralph Waters at the University of Wisconsin discovered the cuffed endotracheal tube in 1928. This advance allowed the use of positive-pressure ventilation into a patient’s lungs. Comment: Surgery within the abdomen and chest would be impossible without controlling the airway and breathing with a tube in the trachea. As well, the critical care resuscitation mantra of Airway-Breathing-Circulation would be impossible without an endotracheal tube.

1934. THE DISCOVER OF THIOPENTAL AND INJECTABLE BARBITURATES. Dr. John Lundy of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota introduced the intravenous anesthetic sodium thiopental into anesthetic practice. Injecting Pentothal became the standard means to induce general anesthesia. Pentothal provided a more pleasant method of going to sleep than inhaling pungent ether. Comment: This was a huge breakthrough. Almost every modern anesthetic begins with the intravenous injection of an anesthetic drug. (Propofol has now replaced Pentothal)

1940. THE DISCOVERY OF CURARE AND INJECTABLE MUSCLE RELAXANTS. Dr. Harold Griffith of Montreal, Canada injected the paralyzing drug curare during general anesthesia to induce muscular relaxation requested by his surgeon. Although the existence of curare was known for many years (it was an arrow poison of the South American Indians), it was not used in surgery to deliberately cause muscle relaxation until this time. Comment: Paralyzing drugs are necessary to enable the easy insertion of endotracheal tubes into anesthetized patients, and paralysis is also essential for many abdominal and chest surgeries.

1950’s. THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE POST-ANESTHESIA CARE UNIT (PACU) AND THE INTENSIVE CARE UNIT (ICU). The shock and resuscitation units organized during World War II and the Korean War resulted in efficient care for the sick and wounded. After the wars, PACU’s and ICU’s were natural extensions of these battlefield inventions. Comment: In the PACU, a patient’s airway, breathing, and circulation are observed, monitored, and treated immediately following surgery. PACU’s decrease post-operative complications. In the ICU, Airway-Breathing-Circulation management perfected in the operating room is extended to critically ill patients who are not undergoing surgery.

1956. THE DISCOVERY OF HALOTHANE, THE FIRST MODERN INHALED ANESTHETIC. British chemist Charles Suckling synthesized the inhaled anesthetic halothane. Halothane had significant advantages over ether because of halothane’s more pleasant odor, higher potency, faster onset, nonflammability, and low toxicity. Halothane gradually replaced older anesthetic vapors, and achieved worldwide acceptance. Comment: Halothane was the forerunner of isoflurane, desflurane, and sevoflurane, our modern inhaled anesthetics. These drugs have faster onset and offset, cause less nausea, and are not explosive like ether. The discovery of halothane changed inhalation anesthesia forever.

1983. THE DISCOVERY OF PULSE OXIMETRY MONITORING. The Nellcor pulse oximeter, co-developed by Stanford anesthesiologist Dr. William New, was the first commercially available device to measure the oxygen saturation in a patient’s bloodstream. The Nellcor pulse oximeter had the unique feature of lowering the audible pitch of the pulse tone as saturation dropped, giving anesthesiologists a warning that their patient’s heart and brain were in danger of low oxygen levels. Comment: The Nellcor changed patient monitoring forever. Oxygen saturation is now monitored before, during, and after surgery. Prior to Nellcor monitoring, the first sign of low oxygen levels was often a cardiac arrest. Following the invention of the Nellcor, oxygen saturation became the fifth vital sign, along with pulse rate, respiratory rate, blood pressure, and temperature.


1986.  END-TIDAL CO2 MONITORING. In 1986 the American Society of Anesthesiologists mandated continual end-tidal carbon dioxide analysis be performed using a quantitative method such as capnography, from the time of endotracheal tube/laryngeal mask placement until extubation/removal or initiating transfer to a postoperative care location. The detection and monitoring of carbon dioxide gave immediate feedback whenever ventilation of the lungs was failing. For example, an endotracheal breathing tube placed in the esophagus instead of the tracheal would yield zero (or close to zero) carbon dioxide. The end-tidal CO2 device alarms immediately, the anesthesiologist recognizes the problem, and fixes it at once. The development of pulse oximetry and end-tidal CO2 monitoring were concurrent, and because of these twin discoveries, anesthesia care became markedly safer after the 1980’s

These are the top 11 discoveries in the history of anesthesia as I see them. What will be the next successful invention to advance our specialty?  A superior pain-relieving drug? A better inhaled anesthetic? An improved monitor to insure patient safety? Top scientists and physicians worldwide are working this very day to join this list. Good luck to each of them.





Introducing …  THE DOCTOR AND MR. DYLAN, Dr. Novak’s debut novel, a medical-legal mystery which blends the science and practice of anesthesiology with unforgettable characters, a page-turning plot, and the legacy of Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan.

Publication date September 9, 2014 by Pegasus Books.

On October 2, 2014 THE DOCTOR AND MR. DYLAN became the world’s  #1 bestselling anesthesia Kindle book on

To reach the Amazon webpage, click on the book image below:


Stanford professor Dr. Nico Antone leaves the wife he hates and the job he loves to return to Hibbing, Minnesota where he spent his childhood. He believes his son’s best chance to get accepted into a prestigious college is to graduate at the top of his class in this remote Midwestern town. His son becomes a small town hero and academic star, while Dr. Antone befriends Bobby Dylan, a deranged anesthetist who renamed and reinvented himself as a younger version of the iconic rock legend who grew up in Hibbing. An operating room death rocks their world, and Dr. Antone’s family and his relationship to Mr. Dylan are forever changed.

Equal parts legal thriller and medical thriller, The Doctor and Mr. Dylan examines the dark side of relationships between a doctor and his wife, a father and his son, and a man and his best friend. Set in a rural Northern Minnesota world reminiscent of the Coen brothers’ Fargo, The Doctor and Mr. Dylan details scenes of family crises, operating room mishaps, and courtroom confrontation, and concludes in a final twist that will leave readers questioning what is of value in the world we live in.


5.0 out of 5 stars The Doctor and Mr Dylan, March 3, 2015
prabha venugopal (chicago, il USA) – See all my reviews
Verified Purchase(What’s this?)
Gripping from the beginning to the end. Very well written, bringing to the forefront all the human emotions seen in an operating room spill over into real life. I cannot wait for Dr. Novak to wrote another book! As another physician in the same profession, my admiration for his book knows no limits.


Bang-Up Debut Novel, November 16, 2014

By Norm Goldman “Publisher & Editor of Bookpleasures”

This part legal and medical thriller is structured with a mixed bag of situations involving relationships, jealousy, evil, lies, courtroom drama, operating room mishaps as well as moments that engender conflicting and unexpected outcomes. Noteworthy is that as the suspense builds readers will become eager to uncover the truth involving a mishap concerning Nico and a surgical procedure that has unanticipated ramifications.

This is a bang-up debut from a writer who understands timing and is able to deliver hairpin turns, particularly involving the courtroom drama,that you would expect from a book of this genre. PIONEER PRESS Entertainment

by Mary Ann Grossman, Entertainment Editor, St. Paul Pioneer Press, January 4, 2015

“The Doctor & Mr. Dylan” by Rick Novak (Pegasus Books, $17.50)

Dr. Nico Antone doesn’t hide the fact he hates his wife, but he says he didn’t kill her during an operation. The authorities think otherwise and his trial is the riveting suspense in this novel that is part medical thriller, part legal thriller, part exploration of family relationships.

Nico is an anesthesiologist (as is the author) who leaves his wife, their plush life in California and his job at Stanford to move to his hometown of Hibbing so their son, Johnny, has a better chance of getting into a prestigious college. Johnny hates the idea of moving to a small, cold town, but he’s popular from the first day in school. Nico doesn’t do so well. He’s envied by Bobby, an anesthetist who’s jealous of the better-educated Nico. But it’s hard to take Bobby seriously, since he thinks he’s the young Bob Dylan and lives in the house where Bobby Zimmerman grew up. To complicate matters, Nico is attracted to the mother of the young woman his son is dating. When the two teens get in trouble, Nico’s furious, rich wife comes to Minnesota and needs an emergency operation that puts her on Nico’s operating table.

Novak grew up in Hibbing, where he worked in the iron ore mines and played on the U.S. Junior Men’s Curling championship teams of 1974 and ’75. After graduating from Carleton College, he earned a medical degree at the University of Chicago and spent 30-plus years at Stanford Hospital, where he was an associate professor of anesthesia and Deputy Chief of the Anesthesia Department. His courtroom scenes are based on his experiences as an expert witness.

The Physician’s Late-Night Reading List

Two Pritzker alums pen captivating tales

By Brooke E. O’Neill, University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine, editir, Medicine on the Midway Magazine

For most physicians, writing — patient notes, case histories, perhaps journal articles — is part of the job. But for anesthesiologist-novelist Rick Novak, MD’80, and neurosurgeon-memoirist Moris Senegor, MD’82, it’s a second career that consumes early morning hours long before they step into the OR.

Fans of John Grisham will find a kindred spirit in Novak, whose fast-paced medical thriller, The Doctor & Mr. Dylan (Pegasus Books, 2014), transports readers to rural Northern Minnesota, where an accomplished physician and a deranged anesthetist who thinks he’s rock legend Bob Dylan see their worlds collide in the most unexpected ways.

Delivering real-life twists and turns — and a love letter to the Bay Area — is Senegor’s Dogmeat: A Memoir of Love and Neurosurgery in San Francisco (Xlibris, 2014), a coming-of-age tale chronicling the author’s away rotation with renowned neurosurgeon Charles Wilson, MD, at the University of California, San Francisco. Brutally honest, it spares no details of a time Senegor, who also served as a resident under the University of Chicago’s famed neurosurgery chair Sean Mullan, MD, describes as “one of the biggest failures of my life.”

One a vividly imagined nail-biter, the other an intimate peek into the surgical suite, both books deliver an ample dose of intensity and drama.



The Doctor and Mr. Dylan (Pegasus Books, 2014) by Rick Novak, MD’80

“I thought it was a novel way of killing someone,” said Rick Novak, deputy chief of anesthesiology at Stanford University, describing the imagined hospital death that was the genesis of his dark thriller The Doctor & Mr. Dylan. A huge Bob Dylan fan — the rock icon was born in Novak’s hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota, where the story takes place — he then dreamed up a possible culprit: a psychotic anesthetist who thinks he’s Dylan.

From there, the words flowed. “I would write whenever I was with my laptop and had a free moment: in mornings, in evenings, in gaps between cases,” said Novak, who also blogs about anesthesia topics. “I don’t sleep much.”

After finishing the manuscript — one year to write, another to edit — came the challenge of finding a publisher. “In anesthesia, I’m an expert,” Novak said. “In the literary world, I’m an unknown.” After 207 responses of “no, thanks” or no answer at all, he landed an agent. Two months later, she informed him that Pegasus Books had bought his debut novel.

“I started crying,” Novak admits. “I have a third grader and at the time the big word the class was learning was ‘perseverance.’ That was it exactly.”


Dr. Joseph Andresen, Editor, Santa Clara County Medical Association Medical Bulletin, from the January/February 2015 issue:


This past month, Dr. Rick Novak handed me a hardbound copy of his debut novel The Doctor and Mr. Dylan. Rick and I go way back. It was my first week of residency at Stanford when we first met. A newcomer to the operating room, all the smells and sounds were foreign to me despite my previous three years in the hospital as an internal medicine resident. Rick, a soft spoken Minnesotan at heart, in his second year of residency, took me under his wing and guided me through those first few bewildering months, sharing his experience and wisdom freely.

Fast-forward 30 years later. Dr. Rick Novak, a novel and mystery author? This was new to me as I sat down and opened the first page of The Doctor and Mr. Dylan. I have to admit that I didn’t know what to expect. Few books highlight a physician/anesthesiologist as a protagonist, and few books feature a SCCMA member as a physician/author. However, a medical-mystery theme novel wasn’t at the top of my must read list. With my 50-hour workweek, living and breathing medicine, imagining more emotional stress and drama was the furthest thing from my mind. However, three days later, as I turned the last page, and read the last few words. “life is a series of choices. I stuck my forefinger into the crook of the steering wheel, spun it hard to the left and …” This completed my 72-hour journey of and free moments I had, completely immersed in this story of life’s disappointments, human imperfections, and simple joys.

Rick, I can’t wait for your next book. Bravo!


Hibbingite writes twisted medical tale

HIBBING — Readers who are looking for a whodunit that will keep them up all night are in for a treat.

Hibbing native Rick Novak recently released his first book “The Doctor and Mr. Dylan,” a fiction set in Hibbing that merges anesthesia complications, a tumultuous marriage and the legend of Bob Dylan.

“The dialogue is sometimes funny, and there are lots of plot twists,” he said.

Novak said the book will not only entertain readers, but teach them about anesthesiology, Dylanology, the stressful race for elite college admission, and life on the Iron Range.

“The book is very conversational and streamlined,” he said. “I try to write as one would tell a story out loud.”

Novak said “The Doctor and Mr. Dylan” took him three years to perfect. He is currently working on his second book.


5.0 out of 5 stars I Sense We Have Another F.Scott Fitzgerald Emerging on the Literary Scene, December 1, 2014
Deann Brady (Sunnyvale, CA USA) – See all my reviews
I found Rick Novak’s first novel, “The Doctor and Mr. Dylan,” a most exciting combination of biting sarcasm, mystery and daily activity spun with fresh new phrases that made me turn my ear back to listen to the literary cadence of his words again and again even though, on the other hand, I was anxious to turn the pages to see what would happen next. His brilliant handling of scenes is reminiscent of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. A compelling read!Deany Brady, author of “An Appalachian Childhood”




allan mishra

This review is from: The Doctor and Mr. Dylan (Kindle Edition)

Just finished Dr. Novak’s delightful novel. I sincerely enjoyed his honest take about the pressures and values that exist within California’s Silicon Valley. He also brought the North Country of Minnesota to life with memorable characters and a twisting, addictive plot. Buried beneath the fun and funny story is a deeper message about how to best care for your kids, your relationships and yourself. Very well written and highly recommended.


Learn more about Rick Novak’s fiction writing at rick by clicking on the picture below:





  1. I was so disappointed at the omission of End-Tidal CO2, which is now not only the gold standard of whether ventilation is occurring but also the endpoint against which the success of cardiopulmonary resuscitation is measured. Shame on you!


    1. Dr. Burdumy,

      Thank you for your comment. I agree with you and have added ETCO2 monitoring as an 11th Top Discovery. The nearly simultaneous introduction of pulse oximetry and ETCO2 monitoring obscured the latter from my original Top 10 list.

      I’ll choose to disregard the word choice in your last sentence. Perhaps you felt empowered to scold someone?


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