- Historic Sites
“Gentlemen, This Is No Humbug”
The single greatest medical discovery of the last century began as a parlor game, and brought tragedy to nearly everyone who had a hand in it
August/September 1979 | Volume 30, Issue 5
Wells insisted in his letter that others were involved in the acid throwing that had been going on all week; and that the act for which he was arrested had been his one and only misdeed under the influence of chloroform.
The suspicion that he was also temporarily under the influence of a powerful suggestion from one of the “others” is strengthened by an incident that took place two days after the Monday (January 24) when Dr. Wells’s body was discovered in his cell. A young doctor from Georgia, twenty-two, who was living on Greene Street, perhaps half a mile away from Wells’s rooms on Chambers Street, on Wednesday evening told his roommate that he was feeling queer; he thought he was becoming deranged. The young physician had come to New York to attend medical lectures, and the fact that he and Wells, both strangers in town, had met, seems probable, because when his roommate told him about Wells’s suicide, he asked that he might have the newspaper, so he could read about it. Sometime between three and four o’clock on the following morning his roommate, missing him from the bed, got up and, feeling around in the darkness, found the young doctor on the floor in a pool of blood; he seemed to be dead. Lights were brought, and it was discovered that the young man had committed suicide by cutting through the femoral artery of his right thigh with a razor. Had he and Wells been sniffing chloroform together, and was he the one who had instituted the campaign of “revenge” against the bad girls on Broadway? At that time chloroform had been in use as an anesthetic for little more than a year. It was the most potent and also the most toxic of the three agents; yet at the time little was known about its effects upon the brain and nervous system. The young men’s use of chloroform could have produced severe reactions, all the more disturbing to them because they were inexplicable.
On the same day the Georgian’s death was discovered, Horace Wells was buried in Hartford. His estate was found to be insolvent. His office equipment, instruments, and household furniture were sold at auction.
Morton did not come to a much happier end. As soon as his patent was granted, he gave up his dental practice in order to promote and profit from Letheon. But the patent was never effective; it finally was declared invalid; fortune eluded him; and his fame was clouded by controversy and criticism. Eventually he asked Congress for compensation. Bills were introduced appropriating a total of $100,000 as an award to the discoverer of anesthesia. In the hearings on this bill Morton’s claim was opposed not only by supporters of the dead Horace Wells and by Dr. Jackson but also by Dr. Crawford Long, who finally had got around to publishing an account of his discovery in the December, 1849, issue of The Southern Medical and Surgical Journal . The battle in behalf of Horace Wells’s widow and son was led by Truman Smith, U.S. Senator from Connecticut, an attorney who assembled an impressive array of evidence from doctors, dentists, and other citizens of Hartford. The news of Wells’s pathetic death, combined with a regard for his character and the impoverishment of his family, inspired a wave of sympathy and support in Connecticut. It was all too complicated for Congress, and as a result nobody got a penny, although the hearings went on for years. There was an attempt to aid Morton by physicians of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, who thought that even if he should not own anesthesia he ought to be rewarded in some way. Testimonials were published and contributions were collected. But these did not save him from being reduced to near-poverty and nervous ill health by his frustrations and failures.
For the family of Horace Wells the discovery of anesthesia had been, as Elizabeth Wells once remarked, “only a source of bitter misfortune.” The wife of William Morton, also named Elizabeth, might have said the same. On Monday, July 6,1868, her husband went to New York to reply to an article that recently had appeared in one of the monthlies supporting Jackson’s claim. He seemed very agitated when he left home. The weather was hot. On Saturday she received a telegram saying he was ill and asking her to join him. By Wednesday he had recovered sufficiently so that they decided to go for a drive. The ride ended in Central Park, where Morton suffered a seizure. He died that evening in St. Luke’s Hospital. He was buried in Mt. Auburn Cemetery near Boston under a tombstone that declared him to be the inventor of inhalation anesthesia. Five years later Dr. Jackson visited the grave and saw the inscription. It may have triggered the acute maniacal attack that he suffered then or shortly afterward. Confined in a hospital, Dr. Jackson never recovered his reason. He died in 1880.
Of the American “discoverers,” only Dr. Crawford Long lived out a placid life. He was still practicing contentedly in Georgia when he collapsed and died in 1878 while attending a patient.