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Monday, 8 August 2011

Horace Wells and William Morton - Early Anaesthetists.

In the early 1840s Horace Wells (1815-1848) a Connecticut dentist became interested in the possibility of using nitrous oxide as a painkiller while extracting teeth. In December 1844, Wells used nitrous oxide to pull one of his own teeth painlessly and later he succeeded in extracting several more from patients without pain. However, when he attempted to demonstrate the gas's efficiency for surgery at the Massachusetts General Hospital, the patient screamed and the audience booed and walked out. Although the patient later claimed to have felt no pain, Wells believed that the demonstration had failed.

Meanwhile a former business partner of Wells, a Boston dentist called William Morton (1819-68), at the suggestion of his landlord Professor Charles Jackson started to experiment with using ether to anesthetize a patient before extracting a tooth.

After trial runs on himself, his dog and a goldfish, Morton painlessly extracted a tooth from a patient after administering ether on September 30, 1846. The next month he persuaded one of America’s most prominent surgeons Doctor John Warren, to conduct the first public demonstration of ether as a general anesthetic on October 16, 1846, at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston with Morton as an anesthetist. The operation for removing a tumor from the lower jaw of a Mr Abbott was a success and the patient felt no pain.

Re-enactment of the first public demonstration of general anesthesia by William T. G. Morton 

By now Wells had given up his dental practice and became a traveling sales representative, selling canaries and later shower baths. When he heard of Morton’s successful demonstration of ether anesthesia, Wells published a claim in the Hartford Courant that he had discovered the anesthetic effect of both nitrous oxide and ether. However Morton had already filed patent claims for ether, which was regarded as a stronger, longer lasting anesthetic to nitrous oxide. Unfortunately he soon found himself in conflict with not only Wells and Jackson but also Crawford Long over who had discovered ether’s potential and he was ruined financially by the lawsuits he became involved in.

Meanwhile Wells moved to New York City and carried on with his experiments. Investigating chloroform, he overdid the dose and landed up in jail for throwing some acid at a couple of prostitutes while under its influence, and there he committed suicide. Tragically a letter addressed to Wells was on its way to him from Paris informing him that the French Academy of Medicine had, after considerable investigation and debate, decided to recognize Horace Wells of Hartford, Connecticut as the Discoverer of Anaesthesia.

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