History of Anesthesia at Stanford

Beginnings in San Francisco


In the 1840s, the discovery of general anesthetics (ether, chloroform, and nitrous oxide) revolutionized surgical practice in the United States and Europe.

At the end of that same decade, the California Gold Rush began and San Francisco became a boom town. The first medical school in the American West was founded in San Francisco in 1858. By the 1880s the school was named Cooper Medical College.

Lane Hospital opened as part of Cooper Medical College in 1895. Stanford University took over both the school and hospital in 1908, marking the beginning of the Stanford University School of Medicine.

The following year, Henry Gibbons, Dean of the medical school, responded to Lane Hospital’s high fatality rate by appointing Cooper alumna Caroline Palmer as Chief Anesthetist. Upon her appointment, Dr. Palmer traveled to major anesthesia centers across the country to review their procedures.

From San Francisco to Palo Alto


The Stanford University School of Medicine remained in San Francisco before moving to Palo Alto in 1959. During its San Francisco period, Stanford opened a second hospital, Stanford University Hospital, on the San Francisco campus in 1917. In this period when the school remained in San Francisco, anesthesia developed as a Division within the Department of Surgery. Dr. Caroline Palmer continued to head the Division and to act as Chief Anesthetist at both Lane Hospital and Stanford University Hospital. By the time of her retirement in 1937, five other physicians served on Division’s staff — all of whom were women.

Dr. William Neff, who served as head of the Division of Anesthesia, 1937-1955, began new research and clinical programs for the Division. His successor, Dr. Philip C. Bailey, remained in San Francisco when the school re-located to Palo Alto in 1959.

In transferring the School of Medicine from San Francisco to Palo Alto in 1959, Dean Robert Alway established new Departments in Anesthesia, Genetics, Dermatology. Dr. John Bunker, Chair of the new Department of Anesthesia, recruited new faculty and expanded research in anesthesia even as he faced challenges.

“We bring in as much or more research and clinical income, combined, than any other clinical department, and we are allowed to keep less than others and have less space per faculty member than any other department.”

Frustrated, Dr. Bunker was asked to step down as Chair in 1972.

Latter Days in Palo Alto


Dr. C. Philip Larson, Jr. was selected to serve as the next Chair of the Department. Under his guidance, the Department of Anesthesia greatly improved its clinical program. Some faculty, however, felt that Dr. Larson had neglected the Department’s research program. Consequently, Dean Purpura asked him to step down in 1982. The position was filled in an interim capacity by a number of other faculty, including Dr. Ellis Cohen, Dr. H. Barrie Fairley, and Dr. Frank H. Sarnquist.

Dr. Donald R. Stanski served as Chair 1992-1997, while the Department faced trying times. During this period, a merger between the hospitals of the Stanford University School of Medicine and the University of California, San Francisco was attempted and then abandoned. Also, medical students throughout the country appeared to lose interest in anesthesia. When Dr. Stanski stepped down in 1997 to pursue opportunities in the private sector, Dr. Sarnquist led the Department while a national search for a new Chair was conducted.

In 1999, Dean Bauer invited Dr. Ronald G. Pearl to serve as Chair. During his tenure, Dr. Pearl has succeeded in increasing the numbers of faculty and residents, and has greatly improved the research and clinical capacities of the Department.



The Department of Anesthesia has been central to breakthroughs at Stanford Medical Center, including Norman Shumway’s performance of the first successful heart transplant in the United States in 1968. Similarly, Stanford faculty have set standards and changed practices through their publications. Examples include George Albright’s research that changed the use of bupivacaine, a local anesthetic; Richard Jaffe and Stanley Samuels published the Anesthesiologist’s Manual of Surgical Procedures; and Crisis Management in Anesthesiology was published by David Gabba, Kevin Fish and Steven Howard.

National Institute of Health grants have funded landmark Stanford research, including Sean Mackey’s and Ian Carroll’s work in areas such as spinal cord imaging and post-operative pain. Other examples of leading anesthetics research have included work in toxicity, respiration, and mechanics of brain injury.

Stanford has also distinguished itself in translating research into innovative clinical care. For example, Stephen Fischer’s nationwide grand rounds tour introduced the Stanford Model for a Preoperative Anesthesia Clinic.

Lane Library and the Department of Anesthesia


James Liu is the Lane Medical Library liaison to the Anesthesia department.

James provides support and advocacy for Anesthesia within the library. He is also available for search consultations and outreach activities.

Lane Library Anesthesia Portal


The Anesthesia Portal on the Lane Library website provides convenient access to a suite of tools for the practice of anesthesia — including access to scholarly literature, drug information, and standard reference resources.

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