Modern Surgery Possible
General Hospital: Ether 1846
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."
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
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.
The Strange Tale of America's Greatest Medical Discovery and the Haunted Men Who
Made It, by Julie Fenster, 1901|