Today is National Doctor’s Day. Because the date, March 30th, was chosen in honor of the day on which the first general anesthesia, a dose of ether, was used in surgery in 1842, Jewish Treats presents a brief look at Dr. Karl Koller (1857–1944), the man who used the first local anesthetic.

A native of Austria, Koller was a medical student with a focus in ophthalmology living in residence in Vienna. He and his fellow medical resident, Sigmund Freud, began experimenting with cocaine (the coca leaves from which they are made had only recently become reasonable to transport and process in Europe). After another colleague accidentally touched his tongue to some cocaine powder and noticed that it became numb, Koller began experimenting with using cocaine as a local anesthetic for eye surgery. He succeeded, and his paper on his innovation was presented at the Heidelberg Ophthalmological Society on September 19, 1884.

One would expect that such a discovery would guarantee Koller a place in any ophthalmology department, but Koller felt as if doors were closed to him due to latent antisemitism. In truth, antisemitism probably did not hinder his career, but an incident stemming from an antisemitic comment did. When another doctor called him an “impudent Jew,” Koller slapped him, resulting in a challenge to a duel. Dueling was illegal, and Koller, who was uninjured in the duel, scored two heavy saber slashes on his opponent.

Koller studied ophthalmology in the Netherlands and moved to the United States in 1888. He was the recipient of many awards and was suggested for the Nobel Prize several times, but the discovery had been made too long ago to qualify.

Karl Koller, whom Dr. Freud nicknamed Coca Koller, died in New York on March 21, 1944.

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