When, toward the close of last century, the brilliant discoveries of Priestly gave an impetus to chemical research, the properties of gases and vapors began to be more closely investigated and the belief was then entertained that many of them would become of great medicinal value. In them Sir Humphry Davy, experimenting on nitrous oxide gas, discovered its anesthetic properties, and described the effects it had on himself when inhaled, with the view of relieving local pain. He suggested its employment in surgery in the following words: "As nitrous oxid, in its extensive operation, seems capable of destroying physical pain, it may probably be used with advantage in surgical operations in which no great effusion of blood takes place." His suggestion, however, remained unheeded for nearly half a century. The inhalation of sulfuric ether for the relief of asthma and other lung affections, had been employed by Dr. Pearson, of Birmingham, as early as 1785; and in 1805 Dr. Warren, of Boston, U. S., used this treatment in the later stages of pulmonary consumption. In 1818 Faraday showed that the inhalation of the vapor of sulfuric ether produced anesthetic effects similar to those of nitrous oxide gas; and this property of ether was also shown by the American physicians, Godman (1822) Jackson (1833), Wood and Bache (1834).
These observations, however, appear to have been regarded in the light of mere scientific curiosities and subjects for lecture-room experiment, rather than as facts capable of being applied practically in the treatment of disease, till December, 1844, when Dr. Horace Wells, a dentist of Hartford, Connecticut, underwent in his own person the operation of tooth extraction while rendered insensible by nitrous oxid gas. Satisfied, from further experience, that teeth could be extracted in this way without pain, Dr. Wells proposed to establish the practise of painless dentistry under the influence of gas; but in consequence of an unfortunate failure in an experiment at Boston, he abandoned the project. On September 30, 1846, Dr. William T. G. Morton,2 a dentist of Boston, employed the vapor of sulfuric ether to procure general anesthesia in a case of tooth extraction, and therafter administered it in cases requiring surgical operation with complete success. This great achievement marked a new era in surgery. Operations were performed in America in numerous instances under ether inhalation, the result being only to establish more firmly its value as a successful anesthetic. The news of the discovery reached England on December 17th, 1846. On December 19th, Mr. Robinson, a dentist in London, and on the 21st, Mr. Liston, the eminent surgeon, operated on patients anesthetized by ether; and the practise soon became general both in Great Britain and on the Continent.
1 From the ninth edition of the "Britannica." Dr. Morton's distinction in this matter lies in the fact that no one before him had ever put the combination of handkerchief, liquid ether, and patient into such corelation that an epoch of continuous use of anesthesia was initiated and thereafter continued. Surgical anesthesia Up to that time had not been practised, altho dreamed of and hoped for; but it then followed almost immediately. Dr. Morton,'s work was a final demonstrationone not reached before, and which has endured to the present day.
2 Dr. Morton was afterward a doctor of medicine. He practised dentistry for a time in Boston, in order to earn the money with which to pursue his studies in the Medical School of Harvard.
DR. MORTON'S OWN ACCOUNT OF HIS EXPERIMENT ON HIMSELF
In November, 1844, Dr. Morton entered the Harvard Medical School in Boston in a regular course as a matriculate and attended lectures for two years, expecting soon to receive his full degree. While pursuing his studies and practising dentistry at the same time as a means of earning the money necessary to continue them, his attention was drawn vividly to the pain attending certain severe dental operations. The suffering involved made a deep impression upon his mind and he set about to discover some means to alleviate it.
He read in his text-books extensively upon the subject, and finally began a series of experiments upon insects, fish, dogs, and lastly upon himself. Satisfied that his favorite spaniel, "Nig," had not been harmed by the inhalation of sulfuric ether vapor, even subsequent to a state of complete unconsciousness, he determined to inhale the ether himself. In his memoir to the Academy of Arts and Sciences, at Paris, presented by M. Arago, in the autumn of 1847, he thus describes the experiment, and his next almost immediate experiment upon a patient:
"Taking the tube and flask, I shut myself up in my room, seated myself in the operating chair, and commenced inhaling. I found the ether so strong that it partially suffocated me, but produced no decided effect. I then saturated my handkerchief and inhaled it from that. I looked at my watch and soon lost consciousness. As I recovered, I felt a numbness in my limbs, with a sensation like nightmare, and would have given the world for some one to come and arouse me. I thought for a moment I should die in that state, and the world would only pity or ridicule my folly. At length I felt a slight tingling of the blood in the end of my third finger, and made an effort to touch it with my thumb, but without success. At a second effort, I touched it, but there seemed to be no sensation. I gradually raised my arm and pinched my thigh but I could see that sensation was imperfect. I attempted to rise from my chair, but fell back. Gradually I regained power over my limbs and found that I had been insensible between seven and eight minutes.
"Delighted with the success of this experiment, I immediately announced the result to the persons employed in my establishment, and waited impatiently for some one upon whom I could make a fuller trial. Toward evening, a man residing in Boston came in, suffering great pain, and wishing to have a tooth extracted. He was afraid of the operation, and asked if he could be mesmerized. I told him I had something better, and saturating my handkerchief, gave it to him to inhale. He became unconscious almost immediately. It was dark, and Dr. Hayden held the lamp while I extracted a firmly-rooted bicuspid tooth. There was not much alteration in the pulse and no relaxing of the muscles. He recovered in a minute and knew nothing of what had been done for him. He remained for some time talking about the experiment. This was on the 30th of September, 1846."
The first public notice of this event appeared in the Boston Daily Journal of October 1, 1846, in the following terms:
"Last evening, as we were informed by a gentleman who witnessed the operation, an ulcerated tooth was extracted from the mouth of an individual without giving him the slightest pain. He was put into a kind of sleep, by inhaling a preparation, the effects of which lasted for about three-quarters of a minute, just long enough to extract the tooth."
This publication induced the eminent surgeon, Dr. Henry J. Bigelow, to visit Dr. Morton's office, and he was present at a large number of successful inhalations of ether vapor by the new method in which teeth were extracted without pain. So imprest was he with the magnitude of the event and the perfection of the method of anesthetic inhalation in Morton's hands, that he at once warmly espoused Morton's desire to make public demonstration of his method. Largely through his instrumentality, permission was secured from Dr. John C. Warren, senior surgeon of the Massachusetts General Hospital, to make trial of the new method, and on October 16, 1846 at this hospital, occurred the first public demonstration of surgical anesthesia, in the presence of the surgical and medical staffs in an amphitheater crowded to overflowing with students and physicians. . . .
The trustees of the Massachusetts General Hospital, quickly following the public demonstration of October, 1846, made a report according the honor and credit of the discovery to Dr. Morton, and presented him with a silver box containing $1,000, "In honor of the ether discovery of September 30, 1846," adding the further inscription, "He has become poor in a cause which has made the world his debtor." Later on Dr. Morton received a divided Montyon prize from the French Academy of Sciences, the "Cross of the Order of Wasa, Sweden and Norway," and the "Cross of the Order of St. Vladimir, Russia." In the public gardens of Boston, Mass., a monument was erected to "commemorate the discovery that the inhalation of ether causes insensibility to pain." The inscription continues, "First proved to the world at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, October, 1846." Dr. Morton's deed, tho not his name, is thus honored. Yet another monument stands over Dr. Morton's grave in Mt. Auburn Cemetery near Boston, "erected by citizens of Boston," bearing the following inscription written by the late Dr. Jacob Bigelow: "William T. G. Morton, inventor and revealer of anesthetic inhalation, before whom, in all time, surgery was agony, by whom pain in surgery was averted and annulled, since whom science has control of pain."
On the outside walls of the new Public Library in Boston are memorial tablets with about 500 names of writer, artists, and scientists. Here Boston inscribed Dr. Morton's name. A still more eloquent expression of the gratitude of Massachusetts is the inscription of Dr. Morton's name upon the base of the dome in the new chamber of the House of Representatives in the State House in Boston, among the selected 53 of Massachusetts' most famous citizens "Names selected, " as stated at the time of the event, "in such a way that they shall either mark an epoch, or designate a man who has turned the course of events." The following names will indicate the general trend of the selection: Morse, Morton, Bell, Emerson, Hawthorne, Holmes, Longfellow, Lowell, Edwards, Channing, Endicott, Winthrop, John Adams, J. Q. Adams, Webster, Sumner, Choate, Everett, Bowditch, and others.
1 From "Memoranda Relating to the Discovery of Surgical Anesthesia and Dr. William T. G. Morton's Relations to this Event," by William James Morton, M.D. Printed in the Post Graduate for April, 1905.