- 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
If Horace Wells had lived a couple of weeks longer, he would have received a letter from his friend Dr. Brewster in Paris telling him that the Paris Medical Society had awarded him the honor of having first discovered and then successfully applied the use of vapors or gases to abolish pain during surgery. Within twenty years or so the same recognition would be awarded Wells by the American Medical and the American Dental associations. The French Academy of Medicine tried to honor Jackson and Morton jointly for the discovery with the prestigious Montyon prize, but Morton refused to accept it on that basis, so bitter had the relationship between the two men become. Both were subsequently and separately recognized by various institutions in the United States and abroad—Morton by busts in the Smithsonian Institution and in the Hall of Fame at New York University. The Information Please Almanac lists Crawford Long as the first user of ether anesthesia, and his statue stands in Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol. As represented by dozens of other statues and memorials, the competition still goes on. In Boston’s Public Garden there is a monument known simply as the Ether Monument, erected in 1867, which has no name on it at all, indicating the dilemma the donor found himself in at the time, with the controversy between Jackson and Morton still raging. There is a story still current around Boston that Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes suggested that the monument should bear an inscription reading “To E(i)ther.”
In its historical perspective, anesthesia was delayed altogether too long, but it did arrive in time to alleviate some of the immense suffering that followed major battles of the Civil War. One of the beneficiaries was Stonewall Jackson. The surgeon who attended the great general after his ultimately fatal wounding at Chancellorsville administered chloroform before amputating his left arm. As Jackson began to feel relief from the severe pain he had been in for hours, he exclaimed, “What an infinite blessing!” and continued to murmur “blessing” until he drifted off into unconsciousness.
It was not an unalloyed blessing. Unfortunately, the advent of anesthesia was not accompanied by surgical asepsis, which came along about twenty years later. After operating with unscrubbed hands and unsterilized instruments, surgeons saw—without knowing why—that many of their patients died of “blood poisoning,” infections, fever, abscesses, erysipelas, gangrene. In the words of the noted surgeon W. W. Keen, “the acute pain of the operation was abolished, but the after-suffering… was something dreadful to see.” With operations easier and more numerous because of anesthesia, this kind of suffering greatly increased. And even after the advent of asepsis, which, combined with anesthesia, as Keen said, “separated us from the surgical past as by a great gulf,” there was still the unfortunate fact that virtually painless surgery caused the number of unnecessary operations to increase enormously—to an estimated U.S. yearly total of more than 2,000,000 in 1976, with some 10,000 needless deaths resulting.
Still, there are few who would dispute Stonewall Jackson’s appraisal of the contribution to human welfare made by the men who brought us anesthesia. Of these, which one deserves the most credit is a matter of opinion. Of their many memorials, one of the most impressive, because it so effectively summons their silent presences from the past, is in the old operating room under the Ether Dome. Restored in 1930, this room, as well as the building that houses it, are both designated as National Historic Landmarks, and name plates on the amphitheater seats are inscribed with the names of people who were distinguished in their service to the hospital. The inscriptions are small. One must bend over and look very closely to see that the plates on the five seats of the center front section bear the names, from left to right, of Dr. John C. Warren, and then, as “Honorary Guests,” Dr. William T. G. Morton, Dr. Horace Wells, Dr. Charles T. Jackson, and Dr. Crawford W. Long.