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“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
Meanwhile, the idea of putting people to sleep during painful operations had not been abandoned. Immediately after his experiment of December, 1844, Wells had shared his knowledge of nitrous oxide and its effects with Hartford dentists and doctors, and by the summer of 1845 it was being used successfully in dental operations throughout the city. He also had expressed the opinion that the vapors of sulphuric ether would produce the same effect. A dental patient later testified that Wells had used ether on him in 1845, and a Hartford doctor said that after discussions with Wells he had removed an encysted tumor from an etherized patient at about this time, but that after further investigation he decided that nitrous oxide was preferable as being “safe and more efficacious.”
Wells continued to make improvements in the construction of his nitrous oxide inhaling apparatus, in the nitrate of ammonia from which the gas was made, in the gas itself and in its mode of preparation. In 1847 he began acting around Hartford as a general anesthetist. He administered nitrous oxide in at least two major operations (one an amputation of the thigh) for Hartford surgeons. It seems logical to believe that in due time the use of anesthesia would have spread outward from Hartford to be adopted around the world.
That, however, was not the way in which the story was destined to unfold. The next chapter was to concern the actions of William T. G. Morton, another Yankee, born at Charlton, Massachusetts, in 1819 (he was four years younger than Wells). Morton began his study of dentistry at the College of Dental Surgery in Baltimore in 1840. Two years later he began practicing in Farmington, Connecticut, near Hartford, and studied under Horace Wells for a time. In the winter of 1842-43 he and Wells practiced as partners in Boston, but they later dissolved their partnership amicably, with Wells returning to Hartford. In March, 1844, Morton matriculated at Harvard Medical School, but he had married that same year; there were financial difficulties; and he had to keep on with his dentistry.
According to Wells, when he went to Boston for his ill-fated demonstration of nitrous oxide, he called on Morton and a friend of Morton’s, the physician and chemist, Dr. Charles T. Jackson, and told them about his discovery. Morton, later that year, visited him in Hartford and asked him for some of the gas. In reply, Wells said, he advised Morton to get the nitrous oxide from Jackson, who was a chemist and ought to be able to provide it. The exact details of what happened during the ensuing year are clouded by controversy; but it is certain that Morton did consult Jackson, and Jackson gave him an idea for using ether instead of nitrous oxide. The idea had grown out of something that happened to Dr. Jackson in the winter of 1841–42. On that occasion he was preparing a lecture in which he planned to demonstrate a theory on volcanic eruptions with the use of pure chlorine gas. During the preparation, a large jar of the gas overturned and broke. Jackson accidentally inhaled a large amount of the chlorine. His throat became severely inflamed, and in order to soothe the pain he alternately inhaled ammonia and ether, with great relief. Next day, his throat still painful, he made an extended trial of ether alone. Sitting in a rocker, with his feet on another chair, and breathing through an ether-soaked towel placed over his nose and mouth, w he “noticed a sense of coolness” and “a swimming sensation as if afloat in the air.” Soon afterward followed “entire loss of feeling, even of contact with my chair,” and total unconsciousness. The towel dropped to his chest, and when Jackson woke up he knew (he said later) that he had discovered the means of performing “a surgical operation on an individual without his suffering pain therefrom.”
Having made this discovery, Jackson described it to a few people, including four dentists and a couple of doctors, but otherwise he did no more to acquaint the medical profession with its full significance than Dr. Crawford Long had done. This was unfortunate, for if ever there was an individual qualified by reputation to introduce such a discovery and have it quickly accepted, it was Dr. Charles Jackson. He not only was a respected physician, with a degree from Harvard Medical School, but he also had been recognized for work in a wide-ranging area of science: mineralogy, geology, chemistry, even electricity, and he was known to scientists both in America and in Europe, where he traveled widely. Also, Jackson had already had a lesson in what may happen when one is slow in promoting good ideas. Returning on the Sully from Europe in 1832 with some electrical apparatus he had procured there, Jackson entertained his shipboard dinner companions one evening with an idea he had for sending signals over wires electromagnetically. One of his hearers was Samuel F. B. Morse, who not long after developed the telegraph and sent his famous message, “What hath God wrought!” It seemed to Jackson that he had wrought some of this himself, but when he tried to obtain recognition for the basic discovery, he was unsuccessful.