History of Anaesthesia in Belgium - Art & Science

Intro by Lien Jakus 

“This state should, I think, be called ‘anesthesia’.
This signifies insensibility.”

These are the words of William Morton after the first demonstration of anaesthesia with ether, in Boston 1846.

About 100 years later, modern anesthesia arrived in little Belgium with the prospects of a great future.

Shortly after World War II, there were still English military hospitals in our fields. One day a nurse from Liège though: “Let’s go there and have a look”. He came back all astonished: “The patients under anesthesia in the British hospital: they are pink! The doctors give them oxygen!”

That is where we come from. And it was not even 70 years ago!

Today the Belgian anaesthesia comes together for our national meeting. We have a society, a journal, guidelines, university trainings, loads of research possibilities, and thousand of patients who receive safe anesthesia for your hands.

My old history professor said: “Everything older than 50 years is history”. Belgian anaesthesia is history. So maybe it was time to reflect this evolution, and ask the actors of those pioneer periods: how did they put it together? Anaesthesiologists seem to be the unsung heroes of the operating room.

The day I planned to explain my future history projects to him, Pr. De Kock replied: “Lien, you will make a movie”. I was lost…
But along with the movie project came a magnificent team, and allow me to acknowledge them.
They are Philippe Meurrens and Sébastien Wittebolle, who did the camerawork, the shooting, the lights, the editing and assembling of the images, the music, the special effects, the good mood, the coffee and much more…
Maybe by this I should reassure you: I did not hold the camera!
And then, there is the brain behind the project: Thierry Dutoit. He was so kind to share his erudition with us and to think anew the relationship between anesthesia history and film tape. We all deeply regret him being absent for health reasons.
I propose we give my 3 guys a cheer.

I am also grateful to our pioneers who’ve accepted to testify about their careers, even if sometimes those carriers were quite far away…
They have been stuck but patient behind the camera, and have so gently shared their memories with us. While they were speaking, I sometimes though I was learning my profession!

And this is a word for you, the younger generation, the residents like me. I’ve heard our elder colleagues talk for hours, and all of them were clinical (never forget to take the patient’s pulse, or to use your stethoscope). But more interesting was that all of them went to see their patients the day before surgery, and every day afterwards, until the end of the hospital stay. Maybe this is something we should put back into practice. Because we’re talking about the past, but the future is ours…

We love to go to conferences to pick up new information, to know about the latest pilot studies and take it all home to change our daily practice. Do not say, because we’re talking history, it won’t change your way to give anaesthesia!
Every day you use the Macintosh blade, Magill’s forceps, Gueudel’s cannula… If you know the story behind these great names, and how we went from ether anesthesia to balanced anesthesia, it will give more meaning to your actions, and I assure you: it will change your daily practice!

I would like to share some words of Pr. Marcel Hanquet, when in 1967 the University of Liège created a University Chair for Anaesthesia:
“L’honneur que je ressens en prenant en mains les charges qui me sont confiées, est de voir, dans la creation de cette nouvelle Chaire d’Anesthésiologie, la sanction académique d’une discipline médicale que j’ai vu naître et à laquelle j’ai consacré ma vie et mes forces.”

When you put a patient asleep, there is this moment when he closes his eyes and he’s gone for dreamland: a pice of magic behind the science.
Anaesthesia might be the best kept secret of medicine.