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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
With this event in his background, one might think that Jackson would have been leery at sharing his ideas. Yet when Morton came to him, that is precisely what Jackson did. He told the young dentist about ether. Morton used it to perform painless dental operations. A story about this appeared in a Boston newspaper and caused a good deal of discussion. Early in October, 1846, Morton called on the same Dr. John C. Warren whom Horace Wells had approached, announced that he was in possession of a means of preventing pain, and offered to demonstrate it during one of Warren’s operations. Warren, with even more courage than he had shown in the case of Horace Wells, considering how that had turned out (or did he strongly suspect that Wells, after all, had been right?), gave Morton his consent, and the brightly lighted stage on which Wells once had hoped to star was now made ready for another performer. In this instance, there is no question of locale. The demonstration, involving a young man who was to have a tumor removed from his neck, took place in the Massachusetts General amphitheater on October 16,1846, before an audience of doctors and medical students. One student described what happened: “Dr. Warren, who was to operate, waited a half hour; he then remarked sarcastically, ‘Dr. Morton has not come, perhaps he has another engagement.’ Then followed sneering remarks by the students, and sneering looks by the surgeons, for no one had faith in the experiment…. As Warren was about to begin the operation, Dr. Morton came in, out of breath, and red in the face from hurry.”
The reason for Morton’s lateness was that on the previous day a physician friend had advised him to add valves to his inhaling apparatus (a glass globe with an ether-soaked sponge inside) to aid in the elimination of expired air. A way of accomplishing this had occurred to Morton at midnight. He immediately had gone to an instrument maker and got him out of bed to make the modification. At the last minute he had snatched the apparatus from the instrument maker’s bench and headed for the operating room. Upon his entrance Warren greeted him with some annoyance: “Well, sir, your patient is ready.”
Morton, who was described as a very erect, stylishly dressed man “of commanding figure and appearance,” was certainly in command of himself at that moment. He had been up all night and had just rushed through the streets of Boston and up four flights of stairs to encounter a hostile audience and a patient whom he might just possibly kill, with a consequent indictment for manslaughter. Yet he administered the ether with composure, and when the patient was, as he judged, sufficiently unconscious, he stepped back and coolly echoed the surgeon’s previous remark.
“Your patient is ready.”
As Warren was making an incision near the lower jaw, Morton very nearly suffered the same fate that had overtaken Horace Wells. The patient muttered protestingly, as though he were still semiconscious. But Morton’s luck held. At the conclusion of the operation, Warren turned and stood facing the audience. He was a man whose normal demeanor was once compared with that of the Iron Duke, yet now there were tears in his eyes.
“Gentlemen,” he said quietly, “ this is no humbug.”
Upon recovering, the patient said he had felt some pain, “as though the skin had been scratched with a hoe,” but the issue was settled. A merciful hush had settled forever over the screaming that previously had been heard under what was now destined to be known as the Ether Dome.
The event made an enormous impression on the medical students who were present, the young men who would be the doctors and surgeons of later days. “We were thunderstruck ,” one of them recalled.
Morton administered ether even more successfully in the same amphitheater next day during an operation for removal of a tumor from a woman’s shoulder, and again successfully on November 7,1846, for a major operation, an amputation of the leg of a patient who previously had refused the operation, preferring death. Within days the news had flashed all over the world; within weeks inhalation anesthesia had been accepted enthusiastically by leading members of the surgical and medical professions in the United States, England, and Europe.
Now everybody tried to get into the act, including Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, whose witticisms were exemplified by one of his joking notices to patients: “The smallest fevers will be thankfully received.” It had occurred to Dr. Holmes that this process for producing insensibility was so new that there was no name for it. In a letter to Morton, Holmes said that everyone always wanted to have a hand in a great discovery, and he wished to propose a name for this one derived from the Greek. The words he suggested, “anaesthesia” and “anaesthetic,” promptly entered the language.