Making Modern Surgery Possible
Massachusetts General Hospital: Ether 1846

A dramatic breakthrough for surgery, the dreaded treatment of last resort, took place on October 16, 1846, in the operating theater of Massachusetts General Hospital. That day, William T. G. Morton, a Boston dentist, successfully demonstrated the anesthetic use of ether during surgery, providing a painless solution to an otherwise fearful procedure. Within a year, ether-a colorless, volatile, organic liquid-was used worldwide to ease the anguish of surgery, and the operating room became known as the Ether Dome.

In a tangled web of rivalry, collaboration, ideas, and experiments, four men claimed to have "discovered" anesthetics as a surgical accompaniment, and throughout their lives bitterly fought for recognition. Horace Wells, a dentist and a colleague of Morton, used nitrous oxide successfully on his dental patients, but when invited to demonstrate his technique in 1845 at MGH, the patient cried out due to an insufficient dose. Wells, humiliated, left town and later committed suicide. Dr. Crawford W. Long of Georgia claimed to have used ether as early as 1841 for minor operations. And finally, Charles Jackson, a Boston MD and chemist-and sometime partner of Morton's-claimed to have discovered ether's uses with Morton. Jackson also claimed that Samuel Morse stole his idea for the invention of the telegraph. Morton himself had a personal history checkered by various forms of chicanery and was found attempting to conceal the chemical identity of ether in order to patent it, calling it "letheon."

The record points to Morton as the first successful demonstrator-the event is celebrated every year on October 16 at the MGH. However, history also suggests that Morton may have scooped the idea from Wells, pumped Jackson for information on the qualities of the gas, and tried to pass off ether as a new substance. Nevertheless, Morton's bold demonstration opened the floodgates for surgical procedures that provided the groundwork for new lifesaving surgeries. "Gentlemen, this is no humbug!" -Dr. John Collins Warren October 16, 1846

The idea of using anesthetics during surgery took some time to gain recognition, though many scientists, dentists, and physicians had experimented with it. As far back as 1799 Sir Humphrey Davy noted pain relief from inhaling nitrous oxide, and Michael Faraday discovered the same qualities in ether. Both gases became popular as intoxicants, but, curiously, surgeons did not make use of them for their craft.

  Ether Day: The Strange Tale of America's Greatest Medical Discovery and the Haunted Men Who Made It, by Julie Fenster, 1901