Ether was first synthesized around 1540, when the German botanist and chemist Valerius Cordus created a formula that involved adding sulfuric acid to ethyl alcohol. Its use as an anaesthetic on humans was only 'discovered' in 1842.
Crawford Williamson Long (1815-1878), an American surgeon and pharmacist, became the first pioneer to use ether as a general anesthetic when he removed a tumor from a patient’s neck. Unfortunately, Long didn’t publish the results of his experiments until 1848. By that time, Boston dentist William Morton (1819-1868) had won fame by using it while extracting a tooth from a patient in 1846. An account of this successful painless procedure was published in a newspaper, prompting surgeon John Collins Warren (1778-1856) to ask Morton to assist him in an operation removing a large tumor from a patient’s lower jaw.

But ether had a more disturbing and sinister use. During the second half of the 19th century, ether was widely used a recreational drug in several European countries[1], becoming especially popular in Ireland, as temperance campaigners thought it was an acceptable alternative to alcohol. Until 1890, when it was finally classified as a poison, more than 17,000 gallons of ether were being consumed in Ireland, mostly as a beverage. The anti-alcohol brigade was partly right, because consuming ether does cause dependence, but no withdrawal symptoms are prevalent.

Ether parties sprang up all over the world. Thomas Lint, a medical student at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, confessed: "We sit round a table and suck [on an inhaling apparatus], like many nabobs with their hookahs. It’s glorious, as you will see from this analysis of a quarter of an hour’s jolly good suck." He then went on to describe several "ethereal" experiences he and his fellow classmates had while under the influence of the newly discovered substance.

Ether wasn’t just inhaled. It was also drunk like alcohol. In Ireland, the substance replaced whiskey for a while, due to its low cost (a penny a draught). After drinking a glass of water, "ethermaniacs" would take a drop of the drug on their tongues while pinching their noses and chasing it with another glass of water. Taken this way, ether hit the user hard and fast. Dr. Ernest Hart wrote that "the immediate effects of drinking ether are similar to those produced by alcohol, but everything takes place more rapidly."

Recovery was just as swift. Those taken into custody for drunken disorderliness were often completely sober by the time they reached the police station, with the bonus that they also suffered no hangover. In this way, 19th-century revelers could take draughts of ether several times a day, with little consequence[2].
In Raymond Chandler's 1939 novel and subsequent movie 'The Big Sleep' (1946) with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, the detective Philip Marlowe, played by Bogart, drinks a mixture of ether and laudanum.

[1] Zandberg: “Villages … Reek of Ether Vapours”: Ether Drinking in Silesia before 1939 in Medical History – 2010. See here.
[2] Haynes: Ethermaniacs in BC Medical Journal – 2014

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