- Ether Anesthesia
- Post-it Notes
- Stainless Steel
The use of ether as an anesthetic in the mid 19th century was heralded as one of the greatest advances in surgical technology to date. Its discovery is one that brought the alleviation of pain to millions, but bitter pain and jealousy to its discoverers.
On October 16th, 1846, the first public demonstration of ether anesthesia, a seminal event in medical history, took place at Massachusetts General Hospital.
- A direct but crude method of inducing insensitivity was to knock the patient unconscious with a blow to the jaw.
- Nitrous oxide gas is also used as a propellant in food aerosols.
- A "humbug" is a fraud or a hoax.
- The first dental school in the U.S. opened in 1840.
Before anesthetics, surgery was an incredibly painful and horrific experience. Surgeons had few options for dulling the intense pain.
The most common techniques were plying the patient with opium or alcohol until almost passed out and then employing several strong men to hold the patient down while a quick surgery was performed.
Patients would scream with agony throughout the entire procedure. It wasn't uncommon for people to commit suicide rather than go through the nightmare of surgery.
In the 1830s, it became increasingly popular for college students to throw parties known as "ether frolics".
Students discovered that when they sniffed the pungent and volatile ether, they would get high. At the same time, nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, was being demonstrated by marketers across the country.
Customers paid 25 cents to watch fellow audience members make fools of themselves while intoxicated by the gas.
Nitrous Oxide and Horace Wells, Dentist
In December of 1844, a dentist named Horace Wells attended one of these exhibitions.
A man who had inhaled the laughing gas began acting wildly, chasing another attendee throughout the auditorium. The man badly injured his leg and Wells asked him if it hurt; the volunteer was stunned at the sight of his own blood as he had felt no pain.
Wells was so convinced that nitrous oxide could be used as an anesthetic for dental surgery, that he had an assistant remove one of his own teeth while under its influence. He described the experience as no more painful than the prick of a pin.
Wells then convinced John Warren, Chief Surgeon at Massachusetts General, to allow him to demonstrate the extraction of a tooth under the influence of nitrous oxide to a group of Harvard medical school students. During the procedure, the patient made a sound which the audience interpreted as pain.
They immediately called the procedure a failure and proclaimed Wells a humbug. Despite the setback, Wells continued to try to convince doctors of the pain-relieving benefits of nitrous oxide.
Dr. William Morton and Dr. Charles Jackson
Wells contacted two colleagues: a former dental student, Dr. William Morton, and Morton's general medical studies teacher, Dr. Charles Jackson. But, neither Morton nor Jackson showed much interest in working with Wells.
Months later, Morton encountered a dental patient experiencing intense pain fears. He asked Jackson, a chemist, for nitrous oxide.
Jackson replied that he didn't have any, but that ether would do just the same. Morton experimented with ether for dental surgery and quickly became convinced it would work for hospital surgery.
Morton then scheduled his own demonstration with Massachusettes General Hospital Chief Surgeon, John Warren.
Morton knew the significance of ether as a surgical anesthetic. He also knew that he who controlled its sales would become extremely wealthy. Ether, having been around for centuries, could not be patented, so Morton added some odor-masking impurities to ether, and called the concoction Letheon.
History is Made -- October 16th, 1846
History was made that October in 1846 when Warren excised a bulging tumor from a Mr. Gilbert Abbot, who claimed that he had felt no pain.
Warren commented, "Gentlemen, this is no humbug." The incredible news spread the world over. Hoping to make a great deal of money, Morton kept the true composition of Letheon secret, although it wasn't long before surgeons recognized the smell of Letheon as ether.
Morton tried to fight the widespread use of ether, petitioning Congress to reward him as the discoverer of ether. Congress was aware of ether's ancient origins, and no money was awarded.
Dr. Morton died of a stroke in 1868. His tombstone's inscription proclaimed that he was the sole discoverer of ether and anesthesia.
When Dr. Jackson saw this he went insane and was placed in an asylum in Somerville, MA, where he remained until his death in 1880.
Dr. Wells eventually left dentistry and became addicted to chloroform while attempting experiments with the chemical. Under its effects, he assaulted a woman with acid and while imprisoned committed suicide.
The room where the operation took place still stands. It's in the Bulfinch building at Massachusetts General Hospital. In 1965 it, and the operating room now called the "ether dome", were declared national historic landmarks.
Dr. Crawford Long -- A fourth discoverer?
Although October 16th, 1846 was the first public demonstration of ether as an anesthetic, there is evidence that a Dr. Crawford Long performed such surgery as early as 1842. However, he did not publish his findings until 1848, so many scholars continue to attribute Morton, Jackson, and Wells with varying degrees of credit for the contribution to humanity.
Suffice it to say that the discovery of anesthesia made possible an entirely new era of surgery. There are countless surgical procedures that would not be possible without it. Anesthesia has lessened the suffering of and saved the lives of millions.