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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
Morton, thinking of the discovery not in terms of a generic name but as a proprietary word, made a vain attempt to keep the nature of anesthesia a secret. During the demonstrations of October 16 and 17 he referred to it only as a preparation or a compound. This approach did not work. The surgeons of the Massachusetts General Hospital quickly recognized the vapor as ether from its odor, and Morton was compelled to admit that his agent was ether before he administered it for the leg operation on November 7.
Morton next applied for a patent, and in doing so he ran into two problems. The first one was represented by Dr. Charles T. Jackson, who in mid-October had informed Dr. Warren that he, not Morton, was the real discoverer of inhalation anesthesia. It was possible that Jackson also would apply for a patent, and if he did, this could lead the patent office to declare an “interference” and conduct a long hearing, with the outcome in doubt. Morton’s attorney told him that he’d better induce Jackson to co-sign his application. This Jackson did, but he assigned his rights to Morton and did not, at least openly, participate in the attempted commercialization. The second problem was that the patent law requires an application to include a clear and complete description of what the invention consists of. The Morton-Jackson application therefore could not hold back any secrets. Nor could it claim ether as their discovery; that had been known for at least three centuries; nor could it claim the effect of ether as a discovery, for this effect, analogous to intoxication, had been the basis of popular “ether parties” for a number of years. Accordingly, the letter of application, dated October 27, 1846, stated: “It has never (to our knowledge) been known until our discovery that the inhalation of such vapors (particularly those of sulphuric ether) would produce insensibility to pain … under the action of the knife or other instrument of operation of a surgeon calculated to produce pain. This is our discovery, and the combining it with or applying it to any operation of surgery … constitutes our invention.”
Whoever it was in the patent office who read and approved this application should have at once decided what a U.S. Circuit Court declared seventeen years later: that this was a great and beneficial discovery of the utmost importance to mankind, but it legally was not entitled to patent protection.
In an additional attempt to cast a proprietary veil over his invention, Morton added some aromatic oils to ether and called the mixture Letheon, an excellent name. But when he offered Letheon to individuals and hospitals on a fee basis, the effort was not successful. The predominant view of the medical profession was that expressed by a Dr. J. F. Flagg: “If it is simple sulphuric ether, and it will produce the desired effect, I shall use it, and so will others who wish to do so…. I doubt the validity of such letters patent. It would seem to me like patent sun-light or patent moon-shine .”
Horace Wells heard about this almost immediately, and Crawford Long, in Jefferson, Georgia, read about it in December, 1846. Long was interested but decided that before announcing his own prior discovery he would wait a few months to see if anyone else claimed a discovery still earlier than his. And while he was waiting, the matter somehow slipped his mind. Wells and his physician friends in Hartford, on the other hand, at once began an attempt to set the record straight. Wells wrote to the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal ; the Journal also received case reports from Hartford surgeons who had operated painlessly upon patients made insensible with nitrous oxide and who asserted the right of Horace Wells to be recognized for his discovery of inhalation anesthesia in 1844.
In 1847 Wells went to Paris, then regarded a one of the world’s great centers of research verification, and presented his claims to French scientific and medical societies. He concocted a typical Yankee scheme to buy pictures in France and sell them when he got home in order to pay for the trip, but his plan with regard to his anesthesia claim was not as well thought out. A Dr. C. S. Brewster then living in Paris attended one of the meetings at which Wells’s presentation was made. Brewster observed that Wells undoubtedly would have received the recognition he sought, but unfortunately he had brought no documentary proof from America. Wells returned to Hartford, gathered up testimonials, affidavits, and other papers and sent them to Dr. Brewster to convey to the French societies. In the meantime a bitter conflict between Morton and Jackson had broken out. Each wrote to the French Academy of Sciences claiming to be the true discoverer and excluding the other. These and other claims and counterclaims produced a three-sided struggle for recognition.