Skip to main content
Select Source:

William Thomas Green Morton

William Thomas Green Morton

The American dentist William Thomas Green Morton (1819-1868) was an early experimenter with anesthesia.

William Morton was born on Aug. 9, 1819, in Charlton, Mass. He went to Boston at the age of 17 to try a career in business, but after several years he took up the study of dentistry at the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery.

In 1842 Morton began his practice in Farmington, Conn., where he met Horace Wells, a dentist who was interested in anesthesia and who was to experiment later with nitrous oxide gas. They set up a practice together in Boston, but it was dissolved after a few months. Morton then entered Harvard in 1844 to study for a medical degree but left because of financial pressures and his marriage that year to Elizabeth Whitman.

Morton resumed his dental practice and began to concentrate on manufacturing and fitting artificial teeth, work which led him to consider using anesthesia. Before a patient could be fitted with artificial teeth, the roots of his old teeth had to be extracted—a tedious and painful operation. Morton had observed experiments with ether in his chemistry classes at Harvard, and his professor Charles T. Jackson encouraged him to try it on his patients. Morton first tested ether on animals and then upon himself to measure the possible aftereffects. When he was convinced of its safety, he decided to put it to use on a patient.

On Sept. 1, 1846, in a demonstration attended by witnesses, he put a patient to sleep by ether inhalation and painlessly extracted an infected tooth. The success of this operation was reported in the newspapers and attracted wide attention, particularly among Boston doctors, who were interested in the use of ether for surgery.

Morton was jealous of his discovery, however, and refused to divulge the formula for his sleep inducer, which he called "letheon." He was issued a patent for letheon in 1846 and insisted on personally issuing licenses for the use of his discovery. When the French Academy of Medicine awarded Jackson and Morton a joint prize of 5,000 francs, Morton turned it down on the grounds that it rightfully belonged to him alone. In 1849 he petitioned Congress for a reward for the discovery of anesthesia, and two bills advocating the payment of $100,000 to Morton were introduced at separate sessions. But the lengthy debates which took place between the warring factions left the issue hopelessly deadlocked.

Morton's legal expenses and the neglect of his practice in the pursuit of financial gain for his discovery reduced him to poverty in his later years. On July 15, 1868, he died in New York City.

Further Reading

Two recent accounts of Morton are Grace Steele Woodward, The Man Who Conquered Pain: A Biography of William Thomas Green Morton (1962), and Betty MacQuitty, The Battle for Oblivion: The Discovery of Anaesthesia (1970). There are a number of older works on Morton: P. B. Poore, Historical Materials for the Biography of W. T. G. Morton (1856); Nathan P. Rice, Trials of a Public Benefactor, as Illustrated in the Discovery of Etherization (1859); James M. Sims, History of the Discovery of Anaesthesia (1877); and René Fülöp-Miller, Triumph over Pain (trans. 1938). □

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"William Thomas Green Morton." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 19 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"William Thomas Green Morton." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 19, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/william-thomas-green-morton

"William Thomas Green Morton." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved August 19, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/william-thomas-green-morton

Morton, William Thomas Green

William Thomas Green Morton, 1819–68, American dentist and physician, b. Charlton, Mass., studied at Baltimore College of Dental Surgery. He practiced dentistry in Boston, for a time with Horace Wells, whose unsuccessful demonstration of nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, he sponsored in 1845. C. T. Jackson interested him in ether anesthesia, and in 1846 Morton demonstrated its use during an operation at Massachusetts General Hospital. The prior work of C. W. Long in ether anesthesia had not then been made public. Morton's subsequent claim to the discovery of the anesthetic effects of ether was bitterly disputed.

See G. S. Woodward, The Man Who Conquered Pain (1962); B. MacQuitty, Victory over Pain (1971).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Morton, William Thomas Green." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 19 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Morton, William Thomas Green." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 19, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/morton-william-thomas-green

"Morton, William Thomas Green." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved August 19, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/morton-william-thomas-green