Seishu Hanaoka (1760-1835)

Illustration of 1804 operation by Hanaoka Seishu using general anaesthetic, 1851.

Illustration of 1804 operation by Hanaoka Seishu using general anaesthetic, 1851.

Credits:Wellcome Library, London.

Seishu Hanaoka was a Japanese physician who studied traditional Chinese and Japanese medicine, as well as European techniques. He specialised in breast cancer and pioneered the use of general anaesthetics in surgery.

While new and more effective anaesthetics were developed in the West around the middle of the 1800s, in Japan general anaesthetics were used as early as 1804. Hanaoka developed a formula based on traditional Chinese medicine. The active ingredients in the mixture were atropine and scopolamine, both of which are still used today.

Hanaoka performed his first surgery on a 60-year-old woman with breast cancer. Although she survived the operation, she died six months after her surgery. However, he continued to perform complex surgery, which was often successful. He also trained more than two thousand students throughout his career.

The events behind the development of the first general anaesthetic in Japan are portrayed in Sawako Ariyoshi's novel The Doctor's Wife.