October 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 6
At ten o’clock on the morning of October 16, a collection of eminent surgeons assembled in the operating room at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Such gatherings were not rare; it often took half a dozen men to hold down a writhing, screaming patient long enough to get the job done. But this operation was different. Instead of gulping a shot of whiskey and being strapped into place, the patient, a twenty-one-year-old printer named Edward Gilbert Abbott, inhaled ether for about three minutes and lapsed into unconsciousness. Dr. John C. Warren, one of the country’s most distinguished surgeons, stepped forward, made a three-inch incision, and calmly removed a tumor from Abbott’s neck as his colleagues looked on. Abbott muttered and wiggled a bit during the operation but said afterward that he had felt no pain. Just like that, anesthesia, long derided by surgeons, had been proved safe and effective. With tears in his eyes Warren exclaimed, “Gentlemen, this is no humbug.”
Within months surgeons around the world had enthusiastically adopted the new technique, and in the years since, its benefits to humanity have been incalculable. To the men who claimed credit for inventing anesthesia, though, it brought only grief. William Morton, who administered the ether to Abbott, had been a pupil of Horace Wells, a dentist who used anesthesia in his practice. He had also studied and consulted with Charles Jackson, a prominent chemist. After the success of the Massachusetts General demonstration, both men accused Morton of stealing their ideas. The ensuing wrangle tragically consumed the trio’s lives from that point on. All three eventually died insane.
Wells was the first to go. He promoted nitrous oxide as a rival anesthetic, with little success, and then turned to chloroform, to which he quickly became addicted. In 1848, while under the influence, he was arrested for throwing acid on a woman. In despair over the depth to which he had sunk, he anesthetized himself one last time, slit an artery, and bled to death in his jail cell. Morton outlived his former mentor by twenty years and spent the whole time pleading in vain to be rewarded for his discovery. He took out a patent, but ether had been known for decades to cause insensibility; in fact, a Georgia doctor had used it in surgery in the early 184Os without telling anyone. With his patent unenforceable, Morton petitioned Congress repeatedly for compensation, growing poorer all the while. In 1868, with his latest unsuccessful effort pending, he suffered a breakdown. Shortly afterward he plunged his head into a lake in a frenzy, fell unconscious, and died. Jackson, meanwhile, continued his scientific studies, alternating geological monographs with vitriolic attacks on Morton. In 1873 he was committed to an asylum, where he died seven years later. The question of who invented anesthesia remains unresolved to this day.