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ETHER USE AS ALCOHOL REPLACEMENT
excerpt from The Consumer Union Report on Licit & Illicit Drugs
Chapter 43

Ether was also used for recreational purposes at least as early as the 1790s, when James Graham (1745-1794), described by Dr. Nagle as "a famous London quack, proprietor of the Temple of Hymen and owner of the Celestial Bed," 12 was accustomed to inhale an ounce or two several times a day, in public, "with manifest placidity and enjoyment." 13 There are accounts of ether drinking and ether sniffing at universities in both England and the United States during the nineteenth century. But the major nineteenth-century outbreak occurred in Ireland, under circumstances that carry a lesson. Dr. Nagle reports: "About 1840 a Catholic priest, Father Matthew, led a great temperance crusade through England, Scotland, and Ireland. It was one of the most successful that ever occurred; thousands took the pledge." One of them was an alcoholic physician named Kelly who practiced in Draperstown, Northern Ireland. "Aghast at the pleasure he had given up, but not wishing to break his pledge, [Dr. Kelly] cast about for a substitute. He had prescribed ether by mouth on occasion and knew of its pleasant effects. After a few personal experiments he imparted the knowledge to his friends and patients who had also taken the pledge." 14 Ether sniffing became endemic in Draperstown.

Fifteen years later, when the British government placed a stiff tax on alcoholic beverages and when the constabulary clamped down on home distilled Irish whiskey, Kelly's discovery was recalled and exploited to the hilt. Ether, which was not subject to the tax, was distilled in London and shipped to Draperstown and other places in Northern Ireland by the ton. Ether "was preferred in some ways, and especially among the poor, to the now-expensive whiskey. The drunk was quick and cheap, and could be achieved several times a day without hangover. If arrested for drunkenness, the offender would be sober by the time the police station was reached." 15

A surgeon visiting Draperstown in 1878 remarked that the main street smelled like his surgery, where ether was used as an anesthetic. Old ether topers, he added, could finish off a three-ounce wineglassful at a single swig, without even water for a chaser. "Everyone who discussed this particular phenomenon," Dr. Nagle notes, "admitted that there appeared to be less chronic damage than with alcohol." But hazards were also noted: chronic gastritis, deaths from overdosage, and fatal burns from smoking while drinking–– for ether is extremely flammable.