- 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
Even today physicians and pharmacologists are not quite sure of the mechanics of drug action in the case of many chemical agents, including nitrous oxide. But it is thought that N2O produces its effect mainly by acting as a depressant upon the central nervous system. The excitement theory was probably wrong. Nevertheless, however it worked, N2O put people to sleep, and Wells lost no time in using it in his own dental practice and in urging others to adopt it. In the month following his memorable experiment he performed painless dental operations on twelve or fifteen people in Hartford. His mental and emotional state during this period was described by Elizabeth some years later: “He would lie awake at night and often abruptly leave his meals to hasten to his office. At length excitement and other causes undermined his health, and he was obliged to give over his profession for a time.” In this statement Elizabeth skipped over a story that must have been too painful for her to relate. The “other causes” she mentions grew out of Horace’s decision to make his experience known to the medical profession at large. The place to do this, he decided, was in Boston, an important medical center from which the news of his findings, once verified, could flash all over the world within days—the great news that suffering under the surgeon’s knife had ended. His purpose regarding the discovery was, in his own words, “to give it into the hands of the proper persons, without expecting to derive any pecuniary benefit,” with the desire “that it should be as free as the air we breathe.”
In Boston, sometime in January, 1845, he called on Dr. John C. Warren, who was a professor at the Harvard Medical School as well as the leading surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital. A somewhat stooped individual with scanty gray hair and shaggy eyebrows, rather brusque and severe in manner and a hardened veteran of many harrowing experiences in the operating room, Warren was nevertheless a man of compassion. And also of great courage. He invited the young dentist from Hartford to present his discovery. As the first step, Wells gave a talk on nitrous oxide at the conclusion of one of Warren’s lectures. Whether this was in the amphitheater under the dome of the Bulfinch building is not recorded. Next, Wells was asked to administer the gas during an amputation of a limb. But as was frequently the case, the patient decided not to undergo the operation. It was then proposed that Wells demonstrate his nitrous oxide during a tooth extraction before an audience of medical students and physicians. During this demonstration, which is said to have taken place in a hall on Washington Street, the patient made an involuntary outcry. As Wells described the incident, “Unfortunately for my experiment, the gas bag was by mistake withdrawn much too soon, and he was but partially under its’ influence when the tooth was extracted. He testified that he experienced some pain, but not as much as usually attends the operation. As there was no other patient present, that the experiment might be repeated, and as several expressed their opinion that it was a humbug affair (which in fact was all the thanks I got for this gratuitous service), I accordingly left the next morning for home.”
Horace Wells was a young man for whom disgrace was worse than death. He had gone to Boston hoping, and deserving, to be hailed as a benefactor of mankind. Instead, he had been hooted out of town as a presumptuous charlatan. Combined with the effects of the worry, excitement, and nervous strain he had been laboring under for nearly two months, and possibly with a physical malaise of some sort, the experience made him ill, and he had to turn his dental practice over to Dr. Riggs for a while.
A particularly frustrating part of all this was that, in the opinion of some people who had witnessed the demonstration, it had been a success. At least three who were present (Harvard medical students in 1845, doctors in 1864, when they made statements on the affair) were under the impression that Wells had proved his case. One, whose account of the pain experienced differed from Wells’s, wrote, “The patient halloed somewhat during the operation, but on his return to consciousness, said he felt no pain whatever. I took the gas, with others, at that time, and while under its influence, I was entirely unconscious … I regarded the operation at Boston, above described, as successful, and as proving the truth of Dr. Wells’ theory.”
Back in Hartford, Wells was improved in health with the coming of spring, 1845, but his illness seems to have been succeeded by a state of restless disorientation. “About this time,” a friend recalled, “he amused himself by giving lectures on ornithology, a branch of natural history of which he was fond, and in which he was well posted.” He resumed his dental practice in September, but shortly afterward invented (and later patented) an automatic shower bath, and the promotion of this device somewhat interrupted his professional career.