Dumfries eurowalk

Point H - Former D&G Royal Infirmary (now Grant Court)

A European medical “first”

On October 16th 1846, inspired by a public demonstration of the successful use of ether as pain relief during a tooth extraction the previous month by dentist WTG Morton, surgeons Henry Joseph Bigelow (father of the patient who had been subject to the tooth extraction by Morton) and John Collins Warren of the Massachusetts General Hospital arranged for the world’s first demonstration of surgical anaesthesia. This took place during an operation to remove a small tumour from the neck of a patient.  WTG Morton was asked by Warren to administer the ether to the patient and the operation was a success.

News of this medical advance reached Europe in the following weeks through the mail and the accounts of European medics who had witnessed the new American technique.  A couple of months after the operation carried out by Warren, a young doctor, William Fraser of Dumfries, a ship’s surgeon with the Cunard company returned to the British Isles on board the paddle steamer Arcadia, docking at Liverpool on December 16th of 1846.  Fraser, believed to have been one to have witnessed the use of ether in Massachusetts travelled north from Liverpool to visit his widowed mother in Dumfries, and presumably also visited medical colleagues at what was then the Dumfries and Galloway Royal Infirmary.  Fraser must have eagerly recounted his observations in America to his peers at the infirmary, as it is reputed that within three days, an amputation of a fractured limb, where ether had been used as an anaesthetic was carried out by Surgeons Scott and McLauchlan.  In doing so, becoming the first surgeons in Europe to utilise the technique. Unfortunately, no records of the procedure are known to exist, although the Dumfries and Galloway Courier in January of 1847 reported that:

We understand that several minor operations have been performed in the Dumfries Infirmary, when the patients were under the influence of sulphuric ether, the result of which were highly satisfactory, inasmuch as complete freedom from pain was obtained.

Plaque on boundary wall of Grant Court, commemorating Europe’s first use of anaesthesia at Dumfries & Galloway Royal Infirmary (Image: P Carson)

The first fully documented use of anaesthesia was two days later than Dumfries, on December 21st 1846 at University College Hospital, London by Robert Liston. Liston, a Scot, had studied at the Edinburgh Medical School and practiced in the city for much of his career before moving to London.

Nothing remains of the Dumfries and Galloway Infirmary from 1846 where the first-in-Europe procedure was carried out, at the time the area was known as the High Dock, today it is the Grant Court apartment development. However, if you cast your eye along the waist-high sandstone wall marking the boundary of the apartment complex you will find a rectangular plaque commemorating the significant advance in European medicine made right here. On the opposite side of the Bankend road, stands the replacement Infirmary, which was constructed in the 1870s.  This building was designed by John Starforth, who also designed the Greyfriars church in the town centre.  The building is now known as Nithbank and remains in the hands of the local NHS board, although it has not served as the region’s main hospital since the 1970s. Regrettably, it was damaged by fire in late April of 2023.