Smelling ether

Ether has quite a strong and unpleasant odour. Older people still vividly remember this characteristic smell during a dentist’s appointment or before they had their tonsils removed. Have you also had or given an ether anaesthetic, and can you remember the smell?

Can you remember how operating theatres smelled?

Professor David Gibb (OH, 10.01.12):

Dr Des O’ Brien (OH, 30.11.11):

Dr Richard Bailey (OH, 18.01.12):

At the Children’s Hospital lots of open circuitry and not much scavenging was used in the early 1980s. Sometimes you could smell methoxyflurane being used in the operating theatre. It had quite a characteristic odour. Dr Reg Cammack tries to describe it (OH, 20.12.11):


“So it was then decided that they would have, what do they call them – scavengers to collect the [expired gases]; over the expiratory valve they would put a tube and duct it away and out into the atmosphere. Although in one operating room, they ducted into the exhaust, air exhaust and it was then finally let out into the women’s tea room.”
(OH, Dr Des O’ Brien, 30.11.11)

Before scavenging was introduced in the operating theatres the air was contaminated with many different inhalational anaesthetic agents. The first report of possible ill-effects and miscarriages from inhaling waste anaesthetic gases by operating theatre staff was published by the Russian doctor Vaisman in 1967. Today, all waste anaesthetic gases are routinely collected and transferred outside the working area for safe disposal by a scavenging system. Listen to Professor David Gibb discussing how he used suction equipment to design a scavenging device for the Bennett BA-4 in 1975 (OH, 10.01.12):

16 Responses to Smelling ether

  1. Robert Pé says:

    I am ether anaesthesia (1971 Tonsillectomie) Absolute Horror…I will never for get it …. 😦

    Robert, Hungary

  2. Geoff Tozer says:

    As a four year old child I was physically restained on an operting table and a doctor firmly held and ether mask on my face. I was terrified and remember feeling as if I was suffocating, spinning and in an endless fall. As a result I developed a great fear of ether. I was having my Tonsils removed.

  3. Dr David Zuck says:

    I was admitted to the Birmingham Children’s Hospital, UK, in 1926, aged two and a half, for tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy. I have a distinct memory of being walked into the operating theatre in a white nightie and bare feet, lifted on to the table, and a voice saying, ‘Well we’re not going to have any trouble from him.’ My arms were held, a mask was placed on my face, I took a deep breath before starting to yell, and the ethyl chloride put me out like a light.
    I had a miserable night afterwards during which I could not sleep, and family lore has it that when my grandmother came to collect me next morning, (my mother was looking after my recently born brother), I slapped her face for leaving me in such a horrible place.
    During all my years as an anaesthetist I never fought with a child, sometimes to the parents’ surprise. If the premed hadn’t worked the child was sent back to the ward, or if the mother was available she was invited to nurse the child on her lap while an inhalational induction was performed by gently blowing cyclopropane and oxygen into a little ‘mask’ created by bunching the blanket around the child’s face. This never failed, the child had no unpleasant memories, and family harmony was preserved.

    • Taarna says:

      That was absolutely brilliant and so kind! I’m sorry you were abused like that as a child, but you were able to use it to bring comfort to children during a time that would otherwise be very scary. Great job!

  4. Harley says:

    Hey there! Do you use Twitter? I’d like to follow you if that would be ok.
    I’m definitely enjoying your blog and look forward to new posts.

  5. Janet de Castro says:

    My grandfather Stewart Vance Marshall was an anaesthetist at St Vincent’s and other Sydney hospitals during the 40- 60s. HIs daughter Anne (my mother), herself an anaesthetist, remembers the smell of ether constantly associated with him, in his clothes….she had a traumatic ether experience as a child and to this day has a great fear of choking. She kept a bottle of ether at home. I remember the smelll, it is very unpleasant. My first surgery was an adenoidectomy aged 3 but this was in 1971 so assume I was not anaesthetised with ether. I also had a client (I am a lawyer) who was accused of using ether while performing robberies, he allegedly had it on standby in case he met with any resistance in home invasions. Useful stuff…..

  6. stellerfan2 says:

    I was five years old and having my tonsils removed (1949). They put a large black mask over my nose and mouth and the smell was horrendous, Going out of consciousness I experienced seeing a red bulls-eye target spinning and a loud humming noise. For a few days after the ether smell lingered in my hair and body. I will never forget that horrific smell to this day…it was traumatic.

  7. Frederick M. Thomas says:

    I also had ether for a tonsillectomy in 1958. That was a long time ago, but i remember that it was a horrible experience. While unconscious i heard voices saying strange things. I felt like I was in a deep well with the doctors looking into the well and down at me.

    I also had anesthesia with Ethyl Chloride. As I remember the smell wasn’t unpleasant and just before going under I felt a tingling sensation all over my body. White I was out I also had the sensation of being in a deep well, and seeing the doctors looking down at me.

    I have since had anesthesia with Sodium Pentathol which was not unpleasant. I did have a feeling of “going under” and fading away with Pentathol, but no bad dreams and voices like with ether and Ethyl Chloride.

    I have had two sedations for colonoscopy with Propofol. I instantly lost conscousness, had no bad dreams or hearing of voices and had a refreshing sleep.

    So much better than inhalation induction.

    Fred Thomas

    • Thank you for sharing your memories Frederick. Especially the information on how you had bad dreams and heard voices under Ethyl Chloride. Thankfully anaesthesia has improved significantly over time! Kind Regards, Rebecca

  8. nancy finley says:

    I had my tonsils out at the age of 6, can remember ether, I fought them, then my mom said they had to slap me so I would take a big gulp of air to go under. Horrible memories. very sick after too.
    the stuff stinks.

  9. John McDonald says:

    I remember having my first hernia operation,in 1960,at Canterbury hospital,Sydney,i was about 6,I remember being strapped to the operating table,and the big imposing round light.Then i had a net mask placed on face,and then had chloroform sprayed onto it.Sheer panic and the sickly sweet smell at first,then drifted into the scariest trip ever,sliding down on a big slippery slope,with coloured balls shooting past,and hearing echos of human voices.I,m 62 now and remember it vividly.

    • Thank you for sharing this story John. What a vivid memory of having anaesthesia. These kinds of stories are so wonderful to hear and share. Kind Regards, Rebecca

  10. I had my tonsils/adenoids out and tubes put in my ears in one operation in (I believe) 1978 in Iowa (U.S.). My husband works in a hospital now and doctors there always seem surprised it was used on me that recently. That black rubber mask and the smell have given me nightmares my entire life. I have also experienced ongoing respiratory problems, which I have read before may have been caused by ether – has anyone else experienced that, or heard of that effect?

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