Arthur Guedel and the oropharyngeal airway

One-piece Guedel

Any definitive history of the development of the oropharyngeal airway (OPA) is likely to include reference to Arthur Guedel and the OPA he described in a short article entitled, ‘A nontraumatic pharyngeal airway’ published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in 1933. In little more than a dozen lines he described a device which today is almost synonymous with the term oropharyngeal airway.

Although Joseph Thomas Clover (1825-1882) is credited with first use of an artificial airway, as this was a nasopharnygeal device, it is Sir Frederic William Hewitt (1857-1916) who is usually acknowledged as being first to describe the use of an oropharyngeal airway, in an article entitled ‘An artificial air-way for use during anaesthetisation’, published in The Lancet in 1908.

Hewitt was appointed as anaesthetist to King Edward VII in 1901. He was also a founding member of the Society of Anaesthetists in London and was made a member of the Royal Victorian Order (4th class) in 1902 for personal service to the King. The Frederick Hewitt Lecture was inaugurated by the Royal College of Surgeons (now the Royal College of Anaesthetists), in 1950. Fittingly, the lecture is now given biennially with the Joseph Clover Lecture – two pioneers of airway management appropriately acknowledged for their contribution to anaesthesia and airway management. The names of those anaesthetists who have delivered a Hewitt or Clover lecture reads like a roll call of anaesthetic icons, and includes Sir Ivan Magill, Sir Robert Macintosh, Gordon Jackson Rees and Brian Sellick.

Hewitt and the airway he designed are discussed in a historical note published in Anaesthesia by RP Haridas entitled, ‘The Hewitt airway – the first known artificial oral ‘air-way’ 101 years since its description’. The original airway incorporated a straight rubber tube, but a curved version was later developed. Brimacombe described the Hewitt airway as the forerunner to many modern oropharyngeal airways (Laryngeal Mask Anesthesia. Principles & Practice. Elsevier Ltd. 2nd edition. 2005).

Hewitt was undoubtedly an anaesthetic giant of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, yet his contribution to anaesthesia and airway management may be less immediately well known than that of Arthur Guedel.

Maltby confirms in ‘Notable Names in Anaesthesia’ that Arthur Guedel was born in Cambridge City, Indiana in 1883. Despite losing three fingers when he was a teenager, Guedel still managed to become an accomplished pianist and composer! His medical career started at the Medical College of Indiana in 1903. After graduating in 1908, he was interned at the City Hospital in Indianapolis where he was required to administer ether and chloroform. He eventually served as an anaesthetist in the American Expeditionary Forces in France in World War One, where the challenges faced by inexperienced personnel from the army medical corps provided the impetus to develop a classification of the stages of anaesthesia.

Guedel also created the first inflatable cuffs for ET tubes, experimenting with location, above, below or at the vocal cords, cuff pressures and possible inflation techniques. Around this time, Guedel would often use his own pet dog, appropriately named ‘Airway’, as part of his lecture demonstrations. Maltby confirms that Airway survived to enjoy ‘an honourable retirement with the Waters family in Madison, Wisconsin.’ A glance at the content of Guedel’s lecture demonstrations from the 1920s suggests that Airway’s survival to retirement was by no means a foregone conclusion and can itself be considered an achievement.

The recipient of the dog, Ralph Waters, wrote a personal tribute to his friend Arthur Guedel in the BJA in 1953 as part of the ‘Eminent Anaesthetists’ series. He confirmed that the saying, ‘If a man loves dogs he will love mankind’ was true of Guedel. He discusses their correspondence, at its most prolific between 1925 to 1945, his athleticism, and his motto for many years, ‘Maintain Flying Speed’, taken from the pilot of the time whose altitude began to fail as his forward progress diminished. Interestingly, he makes no mention of the oropharyngeal airway for which Guedel is perhaps most often remembered today.

Guedel originally described his oropharyngeal airway in JAMA as follows: ‘The airway herewith depicted is made of rubber and is sufficiently soft and flexible not to traumatize yet amply rigid to maintain an open oropharyngeal air passage under all conditions.’ He also confirmed that ‘the metal insert extends into the airway for about 2cm from the oral opening and prevents collapse of the rubber between the teeth’.

Thomas Baskett, in his 2004 article on Guedel published in Resuscitation, quoted Guedel’s own 1937 publication, ‘Inhalational Anesthesia: A Fundamental Guide’, describing use of the oropharyngeal airway during anaesthesia when ‘there is sufficient muscular relaxation to permit the lower jaw to fall backward allowing the base of the tongue to lie against the posterior wall of the pharynx. Depending upon the anatomical structure of the pharynx, this may partially or completely obstruct inspiration. It is usually remedied at once by the insertion of a pharyngeal airway which will hold the tongue forward from the pharyngeal wall.’

Dorsch and Dorsch in ‘Understanding Anesthesia Equipment (5th edition)’, describe an oropharyngeal airway as follows ‘…..may be made of elastomeric material or plastic. It has a flange at the buccal end to prevent it from moving deeper into the mouth. The flange may also serve as a means to fix the airway in place. The bite portion is straight and fits between the teeth or gums. It must be firm enough that the patient cannot close the lumen by biting. The curved portion extends backward to correspond to the shape of the tongue and palate.’

The International Standard ISO 5364: 2008 ‘Anaesthetic and respiratory equipment – oropharyngeal airways’ describes an oropharyngeal airway as a ‘device intended to maintain a gas pathway through the oral cavity and pharynx’. It confirms the size should be designated by the nominal length expressed in centimetres and provides a table to show how the length should be calculated. A table is provided confirming designated size (nominal length) , as well as tolerances and minimum inside dimensions. The latter is relevant to the ability to pass other devices, such as a suction catheter, through the airway.

The European Resuscitation Council (ERC) Guidelines for Resuscitation 2010 confirm that ‘An estimate of the size required is obtained by selecting an airway with a length corresponding to the vertical distance between the patient’s incisors and the angle of the jaw.’

The original Guedel airway was made of rubber with a metal insert. Most modern Guedel airways are made of plastic. Dorsch and Dorsch confirm that modifications to aid flexible fibreoptic intubation have been described and Guedel airways with the bite block incorporated into one moulding, thereby eliminating the danger of loose or detached bite blocks, are also available.

The Guedel airway has endured the test of time and remains one of most widely known and used airway adjuncts eighty years after it was first described. It is of simple design, but many of the best inventions often are.