Painless Dreams

A watercolor of five surgeons participating in an amputation without anesthetic.

Five surgeons participate in the amputation without anesthetic of a man's leg while another oversees them. Wellcome Library, London.

In the 1840s a struggling medical student from Vermont wanted to make some money. With nitrous oxide as the central prop Gardner Q. Colton created a traveling road show, advertising “A Grand Exhibition of the Effects Produced by Inhaling Nitrous Oxide, Exhilerating, or Laughing Gas!” Colton turned his audience loose upon the theater stage, announcing that “only gentlemen of the first respectability” were invited to inhale the gas in order “to make the entertainment in every respect, a genteel affair.” Typical behavior at such events included jumping, dancing, and singing.

In 1843 Edinburgh chemist George Wilson found himself in a very different theater—an operating theater. He described the amputation of his injured ankle as a “cruel cutting through inflamed and morbidly sensitive parts, [which] could not be dispatched with a few swift strokes of the knife. . . . Suffering so great as I underwent cannot be expressed in words.” His spiritual anguish equaled his physical pain. “The black whirlwind of emotion, the horror of great darkness and the sense of desertion by God and man, bordering close upon despair, which swept through my mind and overwhelmed my heart, I can never forget.”

Between dancing and despair lay one of medicine’s greatest breakthroughs: anesthesia. Previous medical attempts to alleviate suffering included administering herbal medicines, opiates, or strong liquors. Some physicians even bled their patients into unconsciousness. None of these methods worked well enough to conquer the wrenching agony of surgery and dentistry—or the terror of those facing such trials.

The curious origin story of anesthesia includes laughing-gas parties in the early 1800s, bloody knees on the stage of a Connecticut theater in 1844, and three Scottish physicians passed out under a dining-room table in 1847. The advent of surgical anesthesia—the obliteration of bodily pain by chemical means—was marked by conflict and controversy. Nonetheless, within just a few years of its first use surgery and dentistry were no longer the horrendous ordeals they had once been. Anesthesia quickly became part of everyday life in the 19th century, just like the railroad and the telegraph.

The Hilarious Gas

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries medicine and chemistry advanced side by side—if haltingly at times. Joseph Priestley, who codiscovered oxygen in the 1770s, had also identified ammonia and nitrous oxide, among other gases. Physicians quickly sought out the potential therapeutic properties of these gases. An English doctor named Thomas Beddoes founded a short-lived “Pneumatic Institution” in Bristol, hiring Humphry Davy, then a rising young chemist, to oversee medical experiments with a wide range of chemical substances.

Breathing nitrous oxide produced euphoric effects, leading Davy to christen it “laughing gas.” For Davy and his contemporaries the gas offered greater potential as a mind expander—a key to unlock the Romantic imagination—than as a useful tool for medicine. At parties and fairs inhaling nitrous oxide became a new craze. Cow and pig bladders equipped with wooden spigots were filled with laughing gas and distributed. Released from the pressures of polite behavior, those under the influence behaved ridiculously. For his nitrous oxide show Colton advertised that “probably no one will attempt to fight”—a half-hearted reassurance that may have attracted people eager to witness a fracas.

In December 1844 Colton visited Hartford, Connecticut. A young dentist named Horace Wells was one of the first to rush up to the stage when Colton called for volunteers. After inhaling his share of nitrous oxide and dancing about, he came to his senses sitting in a row of chairs at the back of the stage. Next to him was an acquaintance named Sam Cooley, a drugstore clerk, with blood on the knees of his pants. When Wells pointed this out, Cooley was startled. He had collided hard with a wooden settee on the stage, but felt nothing. Wells had an audacious thought: what if the gas could be used to reduce pain in surgery and dentistry? After consulting with friends and colleagues he proposed an experiment to Colton.