A New CSA Task Force on History of Anesthesia in California

  • Larson, Merlin, MD
| Aug 28, 2017

Co-authors: Lee-Lynn Chen, MD, Gerard Dang, MD, and Nicholas Riegels, MD. 

larsonWe have all heard common quotes about the value and/or futility of historical knowledge. Here are a few:  

“To be ignorant of the lives of celebrated men of the past is to continue in a state of childhood all our days”— Plutarch   

“History is Bunk”— Henry Ford  

“Those who have no knowledge of the past are condemned to repeat it.”—Santayana  

As California physicians, we often ignore our history and instead look into the future. Some CSA members have an alternative point of view. These members have encouraged the CSA to establish a Task Force on the History of Anesthesia in California.  

In his Leffingwell lecture in June of 2000, C. Philip Larson, MD, outlined briefly how California physicians, scientists, and clinicians have shaped the direction of our specialty since the second half of the twentieth century. Our society should celebrate the innovations that our physicians have made to the modern practice of anesthesia. By doing so, we can help shape public opinion about physician-led anesthesia care teams, and emphasize the positive and vital role physician anesthesiologists have in advancing medical care and improving patient outcomes.

Without a viable task force on this topic, it seems likely that we risk having an organization and membership that lacks knowledge of, or pride in, the contributions that California anesthesiologists have made toward shaping anesthesiology into the dynamic and vibrant specialty it is today. A historical perspective might lead to enhanced satisfaction in our work when we consider our proud heritage.

In California, we are lucky to have remarkable physician scientists and a compelling collection of historical material to draw upon. Many members of the CSA might not have heard of the Guedel Memorial Anesthesia History Library.

This Library was developed by Chauncey D. Leake, PhD, a prominent member of the UCSF faculty from 1928 through 1978. His interest was in the development of new anesthetic agents, and during his research years he corresponded and collaborated with most of the prominent anesthesiologists of that era, including Arthur E. Guedel, MD and Ralph Waters, MD.  

Dr. Guedel spent the latter part of his career in private practice in Los Angeles and was affiliated with the Anesthesiology Department at the University of Southern California.  During his career, he introduced several ideas that were fundamental in moving the specialty of anesthesiology into the modern era. These included the use of cuffed endotracheal tubes, development of oral airways, and a description of the clinical signs of anesthetic depth. After he moved to California in 1929, he promoted his ideas vigorously.   

Through their written correspondence, Dr. Leake and Dr. Guedel became friends and eventually collaborated on several research projects. When Dr. Guedel died in 1956, Dr. Leake originated the idea of a California-based Anesthesia Historical Museum that would primarily feature the letters, books, manuscripts, and artifacts of Dr. Guedel but also include other materials donated to the museum by retiring anesthesiologists.  The museum was incorporated as a 501 (c)3 tax-deductible corporation in 1963, and was named the Arthur E. Guedel Memorial Anesthesia Historical Center.  The collection now resides in the Kalmanovitz Library at the University of California, San Francisco.

The combined collection of anesthesia related historical material in the UCSF archives isBlank Print Document (4) substantial.  The Stuart Cullen papers comprise 2 linear feet of typed text, and the Chauncey Leake collection consists of 8 linear feet. The much larger Guedel material consists of 40 linear feet. There are numerous valuable artifacts from the 1938 Richard C. Gill (1901-1958) expedition into the Amazon Rainforest to collect curare. Gill’s correspondence with the physicians who introduced curare into medical practice was given to the Guedel Library by his wife after his death.

For more details on this fascinating man and his exploits visit: Richard C. Gill and the Introduction of Curare into Anesthesia Practice or Arthur E. Guedel Memorial Anesthesia Center Herbalists. You may also use the search function on the CSA website to search his name. John Severinghaus presented a lecture in the Kalmanovitz Library on December 4, 2015 that highlighted some of the artifacts and papers that are contained in this remarkable historical collection. There is more information on both our history and the artifacts contained in the Arthur E. Guedel Memorial Center on the CSA website.

There is currently a major concern that this material will be stored away in a remote warehouse where access will be difficult to obtain. The CSA History of Anesthesia Task Force needs help working with the Archivist at UCSF to organize this material into a segment within Calisphere – a website (https://calisphere.org/) dedicated to innovations that have developed in the state of California. This would then allow for a link to the CSA website to document the unique historical legacy that we have.  The primary message would be to emphasize the role that California anesthesiologists have had in shaping the modern course of our specialty.  

The primary goal of the taskforce is preserving and promoting our unique history. Our hope is that CSA can participate in the advancement of these goals by engaging CSA members who understand the value of a historical perspective and who want to contribute to its development. The leadership of CSA has approved the formation of this task force and initial meetings have taken place.  

One initial step in achieving our goal was contacting all of the 11 academic departments in California to query them regarding the innovations that have originated within their institution. The next formal meeting of the CSA Task Force on California Anesthesia History will be in Boston at the ASA 2017 Annual Meeting. This CSA task force meeting will take place at the Westin Boston Waterfront Hotel, Frost Boardroom, on October 23 from 4 to 6 p.m. Any CSA members who have an interest in this topic are welcome and encouraged to attend. Please direct any comments on this blog to the corresponding author:  Merlin D. Larson, MD (merlin.larson@ucsf.edu). 


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