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Did you Know?

General anaesthesia helped cancer patients at the beginning of the 19th century

Kan Aiya, a 60-year-old woman, had lost many loved ones to breast cancer. She had seen her sisters die of the cruel disease, so when a tumour formed in her left breast she was well aware of the likely outcome. For her, however, there was a chance of survival – an operation. It was 1804 and she was in the best possible place for surgery – feudal Japan.

Seishu Hanaoka (1760–1835) studied medicine in Kyoto and set up a practice in his hometown of Hirayama. He became interested in the idea of anaesthesia owing to stories that a third-century Chinese surgeon Houa T’o had developed a compound drug enabling patients to sleep through the pain. Hanaoka experimented with similar formulae and produced Tsusensan, a potent hot drink. Among other botanical ingredients it contained the plants Datura metel (aka Datura alba or ‘devil’s trumpet’), monkshood and Angelica decursiva, all of which contain some potent physiologically active substances.

Tsusensan had quite a kick and if you glugged it down willy-nilly you would probably die, but in the correct dosage it rendered patients unconscious for between six and 24 hours, allowing ample time for surgery.

On 13 October 1804, Hanaoka excised Kan Aiya’s tumour while she was under general anaesthesia, going on to operate on at least 150 more breast cancer patients and people with other conditions. Sadly, Kan Aiya is thought to have died of her disease the following year, but had been spared the agony that still characterised surgery in the West.