In this book, Dr. Mendelson recounts the stories of how medicines for sleep and anesthesia were discovered and developed. Among these: How chloroform was accidentally synthesized by a rural New York family doctor attempting to make a pesticide. How ether came into use because of the complicated interactions of a shady dentist with a history of forgery, a patrician Harvard professor who also believed he had taught Samuel Morse the secret of the telegraph, and a Connecticut dentist who was later arrested for throwing acid on prostitutes. How the mystery of wilting carnation flowers in a greenhouse led to the discovery of ethylene. And how atomic bomb research during World War II played a crucial role in the development of halothane and newer anesthetics such as sevoflurane.

The early chapters trace the origins of psychoactive drugs to alkaloids, ‘chemical thorns’ which plants use to protect themselves from predators. In prehistoric times they became incorporated into religious ceremonies and magic, followed by the growing realization beginning in classical Greece through the Medical Renaissance that they are physical substances which alter the body’s physiology. Later chapters trace the often-accidental discoveries of medicines for sleep and anesthesia by a number of colorful individuals in the 19th and 20thcenturies, the movement from plant-based drugs to synthetic agents, and the trend from discoveries by individuals to the work of teams comprised of members with complementary skills. Dr. Mendelson draws on forty years of research in pharmacology involving many of the medicines described here, such as propofol, benzodiazepines and barbiturates, to present a remarkable saga of how we came to have the medicines used today to aid sleep and to make modern surgery possible.

‘Nepenthe’s Children’ is available as paperbacks (both color and black and white) and as a Kindle eBook on Amazon; it is publicized primarily under the name of Medical Book News (


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