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Anesthesia, Discovery of


ANESTHESIA, DISCOVERY OF. The discovery of surgical anesthesia in the early 1840s represented a unique American contribution to medicine. Between 1842 and 1846 four well-known attempts at applying surgical anesthesia were made, with varying success. The fourth attempt, in October 1846, sent news of anesthesia's discovery around the world. It was also, however, followed by an unseemly struggle between three of the men involved in the experimentation over credit for the discovery. William E. Clarke was a medical student at the Berkshire Medical College in Massachusetts. In January 1842 he returned to his hometown of Rochester, New York, during a break in the lecture schedule. Clarke discovered that the sister of one of his classmates, a Miss Hobbie, needed a tooth extracted. Using a towel, Clarke applied ether and the tooth was painlessly removed. However, Professor E. M. Moore, Clarke's preceptor, told him that the entire incident could be explained as the hysterical reaction of women to pain. At Moore's suggestion, Clarke discontinued his experimentation.

In March 1842 Crawford Long gave ether to James Venable for the removal of several sebaceous cysts in Venable's neck. Long continued to work with ether but as a country physician in rural Georgia he had few surgical opportunities. Also, being aware of claims that operations could be undertaken painlessly through the application of mesmerism, Long wanted to be sure that it was the ether that caused insensibility. As a result, Long did not publish his observations until 1849.

In December 1844 a traveling nitrous oxide show arrived in Hartford, Connecticut. Horace Wells, a dentist, observed one of his fellow citizens lacerate his leg while under the influence of the nitrous oxide gas. The wound did not cause pain. Wells concluded that nitrous oxide might have the capacity to abolish surgical discomfort. The following day, he had one of his own molars pain-lessly removed with the use of nitrous oxide. He continued to experiment with nitrous oxide and attempted a public demonstration of surgical anesthesia at the Massachusetts General Hospital. However, the patient moved and cried out (although later claiming he did not feel pain). Wells was publicly ridiculed as a failure.

A year and a half later another agent, sulfuric ether, was introduced as a possible anesthetic agent. William Thomas Green Morton, a dentist and medical student, was searching for a method of painless dentistry for his patients. At the suggestion of his chemistry professor, Charles Jackson, Morton began to experiment with ether. As with nitrous oxide, those seeking an experience of intoxication—especially medical students—had used ether for years. Morton anesthetized a dog and several other animals, and then did the same to his partner for removal of a molar. Having gained confidence from these experiments, Morton approached John Collins Warren, Harvard's professor of surgery, for the chance to anesthetize publicly a patient for an operation. Warren agreed.

On 16 October 1846, Morton's great opportunity came. He arrived fifteen minutes late, and Warren almost began the surgery without him. Through a glass inhaler, Morton administered what he called letheon to Gilbert Abbott for the removal of a jaw tumor. The patient was quiet during the operation, and upon awakening could not remember the procedure. Warren, the surgeon, exclaimed, "Gentlemen, this is no humbug."

Remarkably, the news of this event spread around the world in a matter of weeks. In late December 1846 anesthetics were being given in London, and by January 1847 in Paris and other European capitals. By June the news had reached Australia. Yet since Morton was seeking a patent for letheon, weeks would pass before it could be used routinely. While trying to hide the chemical nature of letheon, Morton was persuaded by early November to allow the Massachusetts General free and unrestricted use of the agent.

Morton, Wells, and Jackson fought over who should receive the credit for inventing ether. Several applications were made for compensation from the government, mostly as recompense for lost revenue as a result of patent infringement. The Academie des Sciences in Paris in 1848 awarded Wells the credit, much to the disgust of Jackson and Morton. During the long political battle, Jackson used Crawford Long's work to discredit Morton's claim. Eventually, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill granting Morton credit and money for the invention of anesthesia, but the Senate did not adopt it. Wells committed suicide in 1848, Morton died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1868, and Jackson died in an insane asylum in 1880. Crawford Long died of a massive stroke in 1878 after delivering a baby, the only person linked to the ether controversy not to be beset by personal ruin.


Bolton, Thomas B., and David J. Wilkinson. "The Origins of Modern Anesthesia." In A Practice of Anaesthesia. Edited by T. E. J. Healy and P. J. Cohen. London: Edward Arnold, 1995.

Fenster, Julie M. Ether Day: The Strange Tale of America's Greatest Medical Discovery and the Haunted Men Who Made It. New York: Harper Collins, 2001.

Nuland, Sherwin B. Doctors: The Biography Medicine. New York: Knopf, 1988.

Stetson, John B. "William E. Clarke and His 1842 Use of Ether." In The History of Anesthesia: Third International Symposium Proceedings. Edited by B. Raymond Fink. Park Ridge, Ill.: Wood-Library-Museum of Anesthesiology, 1992.

Toski, Judith A., Douglas R. Bacon, and Roderick K. Calverley. "The History of Anesthesiology." In Clinical Anesthesia. Edited by Paul G. Barash, Bruce F. Cullen, and Robert K. Stoelting. 4th ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins, 2001.

Vandam, Leroy D. "The Introduction of Modern Anesthesia in the USA and the Spread of the Good News to the United Kingdom." In The History of Anesthesia. Edited by R. S. Atkinson and T. B. Boulton. Casterton Hall, U.K.: Parthenon, 1989.

Wilson, Gwen. One Grand Chain: The History of Anaesthesia in Australia. Melbourne, Australia: The Australian and New Zealand College of Anaesthetists, 1996.


See alsoMedicine and Surgery .

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