Schering Stiftung


Vital Forces and the Age of Ether

Prof. Dr. Thomas Schnalke

Vital Forces and the Age of Ether

Prof. Dr. Thomas Schnalke


August 28, 2014, 6:30–8 p.m.


Schering Stiftung
Unter den Linden 32-34
10117 Berlin

“Lebenskräfte. Ätherzeiten. Zum Neustart der Medizin um 1850” (Vital Forces and the Age of Ether: Relaunching Medicine around 1850) – in German
The lectures and the exhibition are free and open to the public. Due to limited capacity, please register at

The Schering Stiftung organizes as part of the exhibition “Small Survey on Nothingness” by Christoph Keller a lecture evening  with Director of the Berlin Museum of Medical History at the Charité, Prof. Dr. Thomas Schnalke on “Vital Forces and the Age of Ether: Relaunching Medicine around 1850”.

When the New England Journal of Medicine, on the occasion of its 200th anniversary, asked its readers to name landmark discoveries that have revolutionized medicine, the most important discovery turned out to be anaesthesia – the possibility of painless surgery, without the patient being conscious of the pain. On October 16, 1846, the Boston dentist William Morton administered the first successful ether anaesthesia in the presence of several colleagues. The news spread like wildfire around the globe. Morton’s procedure was quickly and widely copied. Anaesthesia was born.

The use of ether in medicine is one of the dimensions that Christoph Keller addresses in his exhibition “Small Survey on Nothingness.” The lecture by Professor Thomas Schnalke casts a wider eye on the discipline of medicine around 1850. Like few other eras in the history of medicine, this period was marked by radical changes at all levels. In the lab, but also at the patient’s bedside, a rational-scientific view was taking hold. To distinguish itself from the idea of the vital forces, the focus was now on Biochemistry and body mechanics, specific sensory energies and “animal electricity,” cells, tissues and organs. Overnight, sulfuric ether became the symbolic substance of a whole era. Gaseous and colorless in appearance and thus absolutely “nothing” – or so it seemed –, ether’s material presence produced effects that both doctors and patients previously could only have dreamed of. It was now possible to relieve patients of pain and make them unconscious in a controlled manner. Enormous possibilities opened up to surgeons. At the same time, they worried that something would get lost …

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A publication edited by Christoph Keller


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Schering Stiftung

Unter den Linden 32-34
10117 Berlin

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