Of Penguins, Pinnipeds, and Poisons: Anesthesia on Elephant Island

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Although Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance Antarctic expedition of 1914 to 1916 is a famous epic of survival, the medical achievements of the two expedition doctors have received little formal examination. Marooned on Elephant Island after the expedition ship sank, Drs. Macklin and McIlroy administered a chloroform anesthetic to crew member Perce Blackborow to amputate his frostbitten toes. As the saturated vapor pressure of chloroform at 0°C is 71.5 mmHg and the minimum alveolar concentration is 0.5% of sea-level atmospheric pressure (3.8 mmHg), it would have been feasible to induce anesthesia at a low temperature. However, given the potentially lethal hazards of a light chloroform anesthetic, an adequate and constant depth of anesthesia was essential. The pharmacokinetics of the volatile anesthetic, administered via the open-drop technique in the frigid environment, would have been unfamiliar to the occasional anesthetist. To facilitate vaporization of the chloroform, the team burned penguin skins and seal blubber under overturned lifeboats to increase the ambient temperature from −0.5° to 26.6°C. Chloroform degrades with heat to chlorine and phosgene, but buildup of these poisonous gases did not occur due to venting of the confined space by the stove chimney. The anesthetic went well, and the patient—and all the ship’s crew—survived to return home.

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