The term anesthesiology was reportedly coined in 1902 by Mathias Joseph Seifert (1866 to 1947), as he claimed in a 1938 letter to colleague Paul Wood.1,2  This letter enjoys some reputation: it is preserved in the Wood Library-Museum of Anesthesiology in Schaumburg, IL. But where and how did the term enter the literature?

In a little-known letter to the editor of JAMA of November 25, 1911, Seifert had it formally enter the medical literature. It is short enough to be reprinted in full:

To the Editor:—In THE JOURNAL (November 4, p. 1538) you have an excellent article under the heading “Anesthesia and Anesthetics.” I suggest the heading “Anesthesiology,” a term adopted by the University of Illinois, which is defined as “the science that treats of the means and methods of producing in man or animal various degrees of insensibility with or without hypnosis.”3 

The Medical Herald of January 1912 echoed this bit without referencing it: “Anesthesiology. This is the new term adopted by the University of Illinois,” followed by Seifert’s definition as quoted.4 

Since when was the term adopted in Chicago, then? In the 1911 revised edition of The Book of Chicagoans, Seifert appears as “prof, physical diagnosis and anesthesiology, dental dept., Univ. of Ill., 1905–9.”5  This would seem to answer the questions of this early job title and tenure dates, as raised by Haridas.2  Among the earliest confirming sources for this precise use of terminology is a 1908 biannual Report of the University of Illinois Board of Trustees, for the 2 yr ending September 30, 1908.6  In 1910 Roden R. Duff succeeded Seifert as Professor of Physical Diagnosis and Anesthesiology, and he held the title until at least 1913.7  From this it appears that Seifert intriguingly would have used the term anesthesiology in a publication only after his 4-yr tenure as a “General Anesthetics” professor, and some 9 yr after coining it. In any case it seems that the former term was introduced somewhere during his tenure, around 1908. An outline of an anesthetics course by the “Department of Physical Diagnosis and Anesthesiology” is on record for the 1909/10 academic year.8  Who taught it was left blank; apparently Seifert left the position vacant and Duff had not yet been appointed. Duff definitely taught the course in 1911/12. When this course had been initially taught by Seifert in 1906/7, his title was still given as Professor of Physical Diagnosis and General Anesthetics (he inherited it from Joseph McIntyre Patton).9  This title still appears in the 1909 volume of the university’s student newspaper, The Illio.10  The 1910 volume had him as “Professor of Physical Diagnosis and Anesthesiology.”11 

It is good to point out that Seifert’s was not the earliest coinage and print use of the term. The term was proposed in a (favorable) book review of Dudley Wilmont Buxton’s Anæsthetics: Their Uses and Administration (1888), signed “H.W.B.,” published in the New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal of January 1889.12  Its opening sentence: “When we find a book from the pen of a man [Buxton] who is administrator of anæsthetics in four public institutions of London we naturally expect something good from this new representative of a new specialty—shall we call it anæsthesiology?” This clearly anticipated Seifert’s semantic distinction between the medical practice of anesthetics and the medical science of anesthesiology. “H.W.B.” is Henry William Blanc (1859 to 1896), a prolific book reviewer for said journal. Blanc was no anesthesiologist: He was lecturer on dermatology at the Tulane University of Louisiana; instructor in dermatology and syphilology at the New Orleans Polyclinic (of which he was a cofounder); in 1888 Chief Sanitary Inspector for the City of New Orleans; former house physician of the New York Skin and Cancer Hospital; and dermatologist to the Charity Hospital, and to the Touro Infirmary, New Orleans.

Blanc may have been the first to have proposed the term, but he used it seemingly only once. He died young, in Asheville, North Carolina, at the age of 35; an unnamed illness had rendered professional work impossible for a number of years. We do not find earlier uses of the term in the common European languages, nor do we find that the term gained any traction before the 1908/9 academic year, and then only, as discussed, at the College of Dentistry of the University of Illinois. The OED gives the first print use as the 1914, third edition of Stedman’s Practical Medical Dictionary; this unreferenced entry is most likely inspired by Seifert’s 1911 JAMA letter.

In Haridas’s excellent discussion of early modern definitions of anaisthesia/anesthesia,1  he identifies the earliest of such in Steven Blankaart’s Latin medical dictionary of 1679. It may be briefly added that because the term is attested in ancient Greek, it is not surprising that ancient definitions already existed nor that various early modern authors writing in Latin had already clarified the term. The medical work of celebrated but obscure ancient Greek physician Aretaeus of Cappadocia (81 to 138? CE), as first published in Latin translation by Junius Paulus Crassus (c. 1500 to 1575) in 1552, had anesthesia as sensus abolitio (sensory annulment).13  The term appeared in a well-known section contradistinguishing apoplexia, paraplegia, paresis, and paralysis. Henri Estienne’s 1564 Dictionarium medicum quoted this section verbatim and also has the Greek, showing that the two-word Latin clarification departs from the Greek manuscript he used.14  Seventeenth-century definitions predating Blankaart’s include a 1658 geometrics work defining the term as privatio sensus (lack of sensation).15  The same definition is given in a 1669 medical work by chair of practical medicine in Padua Raimondo Giovanni Forti (1603 to 1678),16  as well as in the 1672 posthumous work of his contemporary, Marseille physician Nicolas Chesneau (1601 to c.1669).17 

In sum: Anesthesia is an ancient Greek term defined already in mid-sixteenth century Latin by translators; anesthesiology in an American term coined in 1889, recoined by Seifert, used at the University of Illinois from circa 1908, and (to announce this fact) it re-entered the literature on November 25, 1911.

The author declares no competing interests.

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