Table of General Anesthetics
History and Chemistry
Usefulness of Ether
Ether Unsuitable For Anesthetic
New Generation of Anesthetics
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General Anesthetics

The Problem:   A historian from the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, Maryland, discovers what he believes to be a mid-1800's medical kit on a Civil War battlefield near Knoxville in eastern Tennessee. Inside the kit is a small vial of liquid whose identifying label can no longer be read due to faded ink. Suspecting that the vial contains an anesthetic used in the Civil War, he sends the liquid to a laboratory to be examined. What is in the vial?

Brief Background: Inhalation general anesthetics have evolved toward the point of ideality in the past 150 years. When chloroform's properties as an anesthetic were investigated by Sir James Young Simpson in 1847, ether had already been in use as an anesthetic for 15 years. Owing to the cost and amount needed to cause unconsciousness, Simpson introduced chloroform as an anesthetic upon recommendation from a chemist, David Waldie. The utility of ether as an anesthetic faded, and chloroform remained one of the standard anesthetics for many years until it was later discovered to be harmful to the human body. Due in large part to the safety factor, nitrous oxide, as well as halothane and some others, are now used to induce anesthesia in patients. See the Detailed Background page for more information on the history of the inhalation general anesthetics.

The Experiment: Because the vial is suspected to contain an anesthetic, some of which contain no or only a single hydrogen, proton NMR is of limited utility. Therefore, it is recommended that a mass spectrum be obtained and compared to authentic spectra. It is your job to help out the technician who has been charged with identifying the compound found in the suspected Civil War medicine kit. You should choose a mass spectrometry technique that will present you with the data necessary to make legally binding conclusions regarding the identity of the unknown. Once you have identified the compound, be sure to submit your answer for the problem presented and also provide logic for your results.

Click here to receive a pdf file (in a new browser window) of a 2-page Student Manual that will assist you in conducting the experiments in this case study.

Instructors: Send an email to to request the Teacher's Manual, the Pre-test, or the Post-test. Please be sure to identify the course you will use the material for, and a Departmental website where we can verify that you are an instructor.

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