“When the dreadful steel was plunged into the breast – cutting through veins – arteries– flesh – nerves… I began a scream that lasted unintermittingly during the whole time of the incision… When the wound was made, and the instrument was withdrawn, the pain seemed undiminished, for the air that suddenly rushed into those delicate parts felt like a mass of minute but sharp and forked poniards, that were tearing the edges of the wound… Oh heaven! – I then felt the knife (rack)ling against the breast bone – scraping it!”
—Fanny Burney, writing about her unanesthetized mastectomy in 1811
Fanny Burney’s story and those like hers intrigued Director Chris Kaminstein (of Goat in the Road Productions); together with the help of Owen Ever, a tour guide at the Pharmacy Museum, Kaminstein dove deep into this dark history and created Numb, a play about the development of 19th century anesthesia. A collaboration between Goat in the Road, the Pharmacy Museum, and Cachet Art and Culture Program produced a series of podcasts and live programs about this and related medical-historical topics. I sat down with Kaminstein and Ever (who is also Numb’s dramaturg) to talk about the development of pain-free surgery, nitrous oxide addiction, and how to use an esophageal probang.
Tell me about the collaboration between Goat in the Road and the Pharmacy Museum.
Chris Kaminstein: When I first moved here, the Pharmacy Museum was one of the first tourist sites I saw. I went the first time I visited New Orleans and really loved it. I just thought it had such a wealth of info, so I kept going back to it a couple times a year.
Owen Ever: I’ve heard about you lurking around the museum for years (people told me in whispers), so it’s nice to hear it from your mouth. I also ended up around the museum and being there often enough that I started volunteering and giving tours. I always wanted to do collaborative projects through the museum, like working with Chris and Goat in the Road for the Numb project as dramaturg. It also launched the Cachet Cultural Arts Program, an idea I have to engage multiple people in a dialogue about history, healthcare and art—a more nuanced idea of what the museum has and what the history was.
CK: We’ve been really happy collaborating with Cachet, which is an extension of Black Forest Fancies. Owen and Nina [Nichols, of the Black Forest Fancies] have been an enormous help—it’s truly a collaboration. It wouldn’t be anything without our partnership. Owen and I ended up having a conversation a year and half ago and he said, “I am trying to bring people into the museum,” and it became clear there was an opportunity to make that happen. We’ve been in research on the project since then. It’s been through Owen that our work is possible—making sure we can get into not only the museum, but also the museum library to take notes and look at everything but also to look through the books. I have to say, it is a little bit romantic spending all that time in the space. It’s half the fun of it. It feels great to just be there.
OE: The Pharmacy Museum is definitely benefiting from the collaboration. It is enticing people in new ways to come. On the front end, the museum’s relevance as a historic place is that it is the site of the first licensed pharmacy in the United States. This happened soon after the Louisiana Purchase. It houses the largest collection of medicine-related artifacts all under one roof in an independent museum not linked to a school. It really runs the gamut of pharmaceuticals, from [medicine] patents to dentistry [and] female health care. When it was a functioning pharmacy, the various medical fields hadn’t been teased apart at all. The pharmacist was doing all of that. He was also making cosmetics, perfumes, paints, varnishes, trafficking in voodoo potions. The museum really opens up a lot of conversations about what society was like in the 19th century and how bodies were viewed and who had access to medicine. That’s why the idea for Cachet came forward. People came to the museum and saw a few things and they think, “Oh, there was [surgical] operating in the 19th century? How fascinating! How did they survive?” But there is a lot more to that history. It didn’t end in the 19th century. That conversation didn’t end. We are continuing to realize, with medical reactions and people who experiment, that it is still happening.
What’s your favorite thing at the museum?
OE: Lately I’ve been endeavoring to do research about early obstetrics and the push toward the obstetrician, which was coming about when people were trying to professionalize medicine and move away from midwifery, which is where most women had received care. The thing I am really interested in is this specific herb, hyoscyamus, also known as henbane. If taken in large quantities, it has disassociative and psychedelic properties because it is toxic. But midwives were using it as an anti-spasmatic suppository to reduce violent uterine contractions that result in miscarriage. But in the 19th century pharmacy, it was starting to be mixed with other opiates, such as belladonna and opium, and used as tampons to treat hysteria. The Western male view of the female body is that it was lacking in complications and easy to diagnose things as just the result of having a uterus. So they were doping women up with these suppositories and used hyoscyamus to create a twilight by mixing it with morphine. In earlier forms it induced amnesia for childbirth so women had no agency or memory of what happened. I am interested right now in following these paths of certain herbs and objects and how they have been manipulated. My favorite named thing in the museum is the esophageal probang. It was a tool that was used for choking victims, long before Heimlich. It is threaded down the esophagus with a little horsehair umbrella that contracts and expands to hopefully dislodge what you are choking on. But when you say that word out loud—esophageal probang—you can see people’s imaginations ricochet across their bodies like, “What is this tool?!”
CK: My favorite thing is more of a concept that led me and Goat in the Road to be interested in the history of anesthesiology, which was the experimentation that happened on one’s self as a doctor or practitioner. There are lots of examples in the museum of drugs and toxins that doctors first tried on themselves. The idea that it was the proper thing to do, to test them on yourself, is fascinating. The first guy to realize chloroform could be used as a drug was getting together with his friends and messing with different drugs. One week they tried chloroform and woke up under the dining room table a couple hours later. They were like, “This is fucking dope! This works!” And thus was born chloroform, which was the most popular early form of anesthetic. Not the first but the most popular, because it was used on Queen Victoria. She gave birth under the influence of chloroform so then it became very popular. That idea of self-exploration or self-experimentation is pretty interesting to me.
That is what inspired Numb?
CK: The play is born out of being in the museum and using the museum as an instigator for thought about 19th century medicine. There is an exhibit about the early days of anesthesiology. The spirit of the museum, the facts of 19th century medicine and that section of the museum set us on a path of looking at the first people who were figuring out which drugs could offer a painless surgery… We were first looking at William Halsted, who was the first to use cocaine as a local anesthetic in surgery. That led us to look at Horace Wells, the first dentist to use nitrous in dental surgery and who eventually became addicted to nitrous oxide; and Humphry Davy, who was the first to experiment with nitrous oxide at the very end of the 18th century and also became addicted. Chloroform is considered a more intense addiction, as is ether, but nitrous was this amazing new drug and so in the same way when you first started smoking pot in high school and you think, “This is fucking crazy!” and you are doing it way too much— similar idea with nitrous addiction. The play started to settle on three different storylines, which are Horace Wells, Humphry Davy, and Fanny Burney. She wrote a long letter to her sister about having her breast removed without the benefit of anesthetics. It was an interesting window into what that pain would feel like.
I can’t even imagine what that would feel like, to have my breast removed without anesthesia. But that wasn’t unusual?
CK: Anesthetics just weren’t widely available then. Her letter was a very detailed account by a wonderful writer. Surgery was so rare [for] Horace Wells and T.G. Morton, a guy who made ether more popular. He was a mentee of Horace Wells. At the time, they were doing 50 surgeries a year. After he started using ether, there was this incredible uptick to 2,000 surgeries a year. There weren’t better survival rates (because they still didn’t know about how bacteria was responsible for a lot of infection), but because surgery was now painless, people were less hesitant to submit.
OE: Fanny’s operation was average in that the experience of the blade and the experience of the pain were inseparable at that time.
CK: We are always trying to figure out how to talk about the city we live in in different ways. New Orleans is one of the most fascinating parts of the museum, the fact that the cocktail was really invented in pharmacies to make harsh medicines go down easier. But New Orleans also has relationships with darkness and lightness. These [doctors and pharmacists] were people who were creating an incredible boon to humanity: pain-free surgery is amazing, no way around it. It is an amazing invention. But while doing this, they were experimenting on themselves and falling into darkness and addiction because of it. Halsted got addicted to both cocaine and morphine and cycled between them throughout his life. Because New Orleans has a relationship with lightness and darkness, we have a very advanced understanding of catharsis. We get it. [laughs] I won’t say I get it but people before me get it. You need your catharsis each year… We have seen both sides, all of us as members of this particular city. We have friends who go to the cathartic dark place to sweep out the subconscious and never come back. They become addicted or alcoholics—in some way they get mangled by that. But we know the other side, that catharsis provides incredible release and joy and that people who visit the city can feel the immediate magic of it and that something different is happening and is palpable in the air here. There is a line there: you want to go right up to the edge of darkness to cleanse yourself and then come back and be able to live as a functional human being in agreed-upon society.
I won’t speak for anarchists so I don’t know if it is everyone’s wish, but I know it is a lot of people’s wish and it feels like these doctors are going through the same thing. There is this incredible pain and darkness that is a prevalent part of life. At a certain point, you either get surgery or you don’t get surgery and die, so they created pain- free surgery. But in the process the doctors are going right up to that edge and many are falling to the other side… In addition to doctors operating and experimenting on themselves, they were also experimenting on other people. That is a brutal part of the history that sometimes gets over-sensationalized in a way that doesn’t give credit to the humanity of that. But I think being able to put actors on a stage who can embody these individuals who went through surgery can help give that humanity back.
Numb runs November 7th through December 6th, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 7 at the Ether Dome (corner of St. Claude and Independence). Numb is also part of the New Orleans Fringe Fest. Tickets and more information, including a series of related original podcasts, can be found at goatintheroadproductions.org. The Pharmacy Museum is at 514 Chartres and is open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 am to 4 pm. More information at pharmacymuseum.org. More information about the Cachet Cultural Arts Program at blackforestfancies.com/cachet.htm.