The Mother of Anesthesia
Alice Magaw Kessel was a pioneer in nursing research and the practice of nurse anesthesia through the publication of her clinical findings. She literally changed the anesthesia profession as we know it today.
Alice Magaw became friends with Edith Graham in Rochester and while at school at the Women's Hospital of Chicago. Returning to Rochester, Alice worked as a staff nurse at St Mary's hospital and was soon chosen by Charles H Mayo, MD and William J Mayo, MD to assume the role of anesthetist which had been performed by Edith Graham before her marriage to Charles H Mayo, MD. Alice was sent back to Chicago for additional training in the use of a microscope to assist in the preparation and examination of pathological specimens. She also assisted the Mayo brothers in their clinic offices.
Magaw's success in anesthesiology is in large part due to understanding her role through documentation, observation, and her clinical skills. Her sound anesthesia principles and practices remain true today. Talking to the patient, attentive titration of anesthetics, airway management skills, patient response monitoring, and awareness of the surgical procedure to anticipate the needs of the surgeon without hurrying the anesthesia process.
Through many published articles Magaw became internationally recognized and physicians saw a decrease in anesthetic-related mortality. Setting the bar for safe, research-based anesthesia, Magaw's documentation was used as evidence to validate a landmark civil case that challenged nursing practices with regard to administering anesthetics. The court assessed that when a nurse administered anesthesia, she was practicing nursing.
In 1899, Magaw became the first nurse anesthetist to bepublished when the Northwestern Lancet printed her article "Observationsin Anesthesia." Five more articles would follow. Charles Mayo bestowed upon herthe name "Mother of Anesthesia" for her mastery of open drop ether.
Through her association with the Mayo brothers, Alice Magaw met Dr George Kessel, a prominent surgeon from Cresco, Iowa. After a courtship period, Kessel and Magaw were married at the home of William J Mayo, the best man, on May 23, 1908. The local newspaper described their marriage as a union of two professional people and they would be honeymooning for three months touring Europe. Upon their return, Magaw began providing anesthesia in the old Kessel Hospital and continued in the new St Joseph's Mercy Hospital. The local newspaper reported on many occasions the Mayo brothers, Kessel, and Magaw working in the Cresco hospitals together.
Dr Kessel was a widower with four daughters. The oldest two were grown, educated, and independent and two were still at home when Magaw and Kessel married. Not unlike today, juggling a profession, motherhood, a household, and being a new wife was difficult at times.A legal separation was arranged and signed on August 7, 1919. The two were never divorced and Magaw was considered a 'grass widow' which was a common label at that time. Magaw returned to Mayo for a short time until she left to deal with several health issues including diabetes. Alice spent her last few weeks of life in a sanitarium in Hudson, Wisconsin. She was there for 59 days, dying from diabetes on February 17, 1928.. Her final resting place is in the Corunna, Michigan, next to her family.
It was Magaw's dedication to excellence and her documentation of her perfection of the early anesthetic techniques that set the standard for current anesthesia providers. For someone who was given so little to work with, she made a lasting and indelible impression on a profession that is proud to claim her as the 'Mother of Anesthesia'. (AANA Journal, 2009).