A New World Power, 1890-1914

Author: William T. G. Morton  | Date: 1905

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The Discovery of Surgical Anesthesia

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 practicing 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 textbooks extensively upon the subject, and finally began a series of experiments upon insects, fish, dogs, and lastly upon 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, in the Boston "Daily Journal" of October 1, 1846, 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. Largely through his instrumentality, permission was secured from Dr. John C. Warren, senior surgeon of the Massachusetts General Hospital, 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.

IN 1896," states Dr. Hugh H. Young of Johns Hopkins, "documents placed in my hands—time-stained papers, case histories, account books, affidavits from patients, attendants, physicians in his town (Jefferson) and elsewhere in Georgia—furnished overwhelming proof of the originality of Dr. Long’s discovery and his successful employment of ether to produce complete anesthesia in numerous operations…. I found that the great Dr. Marion Sims had ardently asserted that Long undoubtedly had done the first operations under ether anesthesia—antedating the work of Dr. Morton at the Massachusetts General by four years…. Dr. Long, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, knowing the exhilarating properties of nitrous oxid and sulphuric ether, frequently furnished ether to young men who met at his office for an ’ether frolic’ in the winter of 1841-42, In his own words:

"’On numerous occasions I inhaled ether for its exhilarating properties, and would frequently, at some short time subsequent to its inhalation, discover bruised or painful spots on my person which I had no recollection of causing and which I felt satisfied were received while under the influence of ether. I noticed my friends, while etherized, received falls and blows which I believed were sufficient to produce pain on a person not in a state of anesthesia, and on questioning them they uniformly assured me that they did not feel the least pain from these accidents. Observing these facts, I was led to believe that anesthesia was produced by the inhalation of ether and that its use would be applicable in surgical operations.

"’The first patient to whom I administered ether in a surgical operation was James M. Venable, who then resided within two miles of Jefferson. He consulted me on several occasions in regard to the propriety of removing two small tumors on the back part of his neck, but would postpone from time to time having the operation performed, from dread of pain. At length I mentioned to him the fact of my receiving bruises while under the influence of the vapor of ether without suffering and as I knew him to be fond of and accustomed to inhaling ether, I suggested to him the probability that the operation might be performed without pain. He consented to have one tumor removed, and the operation was performed the same evening. The ether was given on a towel, and when he was fully under its influence I extirpated the tumor.

"’It was encysted and about half an inch in diameter. The patient continued to inhale ether during the time of the operation, and when informed it was over, seemed incredulous until the tumor was shown him. He gave no evidence of suffering during the operation, and assured me, after it was over, that he did not experience the least degree of pain from its performance. This operation was performed on the 30th of March, 1842.’"


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Chicago: William T. G. Morton and Crawford H. Long, "The Discovery of Surgical Anesthesia," A New World Power, 1890-1914 in America, Vol.7, Pp.63-76 Original Sources, accessed August 9, 2022, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=4VT5DX2UMAB28UE.

MLA: Morton, William T. G., and Crawford H. Long. "The Discovery of Surgical Anesthesia." A New World Power, 1890-1914, in America, Vol.7, Pp.63-76, Original Sources. 9 Aug. 2022. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=4VT5DX2UMAB28UE.

Harvard: Morton, WT, Long, CH, 'The Discovery of Surgical Anesthesia' in A New World Power, 1890-1914. cited in , America, Vol.7, Pp.63-76. Original Sources, retrieved 9 August 2022, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=4VT5DX2UMAB28UE.