- 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
“ EIGHT STRONG MEN are engaged to occupy the front seats, to protect those under the influence of the Gas from injuring themselves or others. This course is adopted that no apprehension of danger may be entertained. Probably no one will attempt to fight.
“ THE EFFECT OF THE GAS is to make those who inhale it either Laugh, Sing, Dance, Speak or Fight, etc., etc., according to the leading trait of their character. They seem to retain consciousness enough not to say or do that which they would have occasion to regret.”
The conductor of the show and Chemical Lecturer (every entertainment in those days had to be either “educational” or “moral”) was “Professor” Gardner Quincy Colton, then thirty, who, with the aid of chemistry, was enjoying quite a success on the stage. Colton had conceived of his laughing-gas show while studying medicine in New York, and he had been on the road with it for less than a year.
When the entertainment began in Union Hall, Hartford, on that December evening in 1844, a young dentist, Horace Wells, was in the audience with his wife, Elizabeth. Born in Vermont in 1815, Wells had attended good schools in New England, studied dentistry in Boston, and opened a practice in Hartford in 1836. Soon he had become well known and respected in that city; patients listed in his still-existing daybook bore names that have long been prominent in Hartford; and his high professional standards are evident in a treatise on teeth and their care that he published in 1838. He was also known as an inventor who owned patents. Associates described Horace Wells as a thoughtful, sometimes abstracted young man who “had a mind of uncommon restlessness, activity, and intelligence.” He was “of medium height, with a head of remarkable size, complexion light, compactly built, of pleasing countenance and address,” animated and cheerful in conversation, yet unusually sensitive and inclined toward retirement from general society. Wells’s sensitivity was reflected in an extreme awareness of what other people thought of him and also in his distress at the suffering he often had to inflict upon his dental patients. A doctor remembered talking with Wells in 1840 and finding him “deeply impressed with the idea that some discovery would yet be made by which dental and other operations might be performed without any pain.”
When Professor Colton called for volunteers to come forward from the audience, Horace Wells—much to everyone’s surprise—was one of those who responded. He joined the inhalers on stage, took some of the laughing gas, and did something foolish for which Elizabeth later scolded him. Just what he did is not recorded, but she later recalled, “When we came out of the lecture to return home, I reproached my husband for taking the gas and making himself ridiculous before a public assembly.” It was an astonishing thing for a professional man allegedly so reticent and so conscious of his reputation to have done.
At a memorial banquet on an evening exactly fifty years later, Professor Gardner Colton recalled the performance:
“A number of gentlemen inhaled the gas, Dr. Wells among them. When Mr. Samuel Cooley got under the influence he began to dance and dash around and ran against some wooden settees and thereby jammed his legs. Dr. Wells said to him, ‘You must have hurt yourself.’ ‘O, no,’ said he. Well, after a while he began to feel some pain, after the effects of the gas had worn off, and then his leg began to bleed. He says, ‘I did not know I was running against the bench. I did not feel a particle of pain until the effects of the gas passed off.’ When the audience was going out Dr. Wells came to me and said, ‘Why cannot a man have a tooth extracted and not feel it under the effects of the gas?’ I said I did not know. ‘Well,’ said he, ‘I believe it can be done. Mr. Cooley did not know that he hurt himself until the effects of the gas passed off.’
“Said he, ‘I have a big molar that is decayed and I should be glad to have it pulled.’ The next day, on the llth, I took the bag of gas to his office, and I think Mr. Cooley was present, at any rate Dr. Wells sent out for a neighboring dentist, a Dr. Riggs, to come in and draw his tooth.”
The story is continued in a letter written by Dr. John M. Riggs:
“Wells took his seat in the operating chair. I examined the tooth so as to be ready to operate without delay. Wells took the bag in his lap and the tube in his mouth & inhaled till insensibility relaxed the muscles of his arms … his hands fell upon his breast & his head dropped on the head rest & I instantly [word illegible] the forceps into his mouth—onto the tooth and extracted it.