Seishu Hanaoka: The father of anaesthesia

How one man’s discovery of a general anaesthetic led to pain-free surgery.

Almost 50 years before an effective general anaesthetic was available in the West, it was used by physician Seishu Hanaoka in Japan.

Hanaoka devoted his life to creating a general anaesthetic so that patients could undergo pain-free surgery.

It took Hanaoka 20 years of research to create the right anaesthetic formula using a combination of drugs derived from poisonous plants used in Chinese medicine.

When he believed he’d arrived at a safe dose he tested the formula on his wife. Unfortunately he had miscalculated the dose and she went blind as a result.

However, Hanaoka persisted and found an effective combination made up of angel’s trumpet and Japanese monkshood. The active ingredients in this formula were atropine and scopolamine, substances which are still used today as sedatives and muscle relaxants. 

Combining traditional Chinese medicine with European methods of surgery, he carried out the world’s first treatment of breast cancer under general anaesthetic in 1804. This was the first documented use of general anaesthesia in the world.

Hanaoka went on to perform over 150 breast cancer surgeries in Japan and is now widely considered to be the father of anaesthesia.