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.

Wells was to be the first guinea pig, with Colton providing the gas and a fellow dentist extracting a stubborn wisdom tooth. After the experiment Wells exclaimed, “It is the greatest discovery ever made! I didn’t feel it so much as a prick of a pin!”

Under the Ether Dome

Wells had indeed made an amazing discovery, but he faced both skeptics and detractors. His demonstration of tooth-pulling under nitrous oxide at Massachusetts General Hospital in January 1845 failed to convince doctors and medical students when his patient moved about and groaned during the procedure, even though the man insisted afterward that he had felt no pain. And a former business partner, a fellow dentist and doctor named William T. G. Morton, soon tried to take credit for proposing an inhaled anesthetic. Morton’s chosen substance, however, was quite different from nitrous oxide: ether or diethyl ether, often called sulfuric ether at the time. Mention of this clear, flammable, volatile liquid goes back to at least the 16th century, when it had been called “sweet oil of vitriol.” Many remarked on its therapeutic properties, and a Georgia doctor named Crawford Long even used it as an anesthetic in 1842, though he only published his findings later. Like nitrous oxide, ether found popularity as a recreational drug, with medical students and others holding “ether frolics.”

Morton, a relentless self-promoter and schemer, stole money and ideas from others, then tried to take sole credit for shared innovations. Despite his shady character he played a leading role in the first public demonstration of ether as a general anesthetic for surgery. This momentous event took place before a large audience on October 16, 1846, in the operating amphitheater at Massachusetts General Hospital, now memorialized as the “Ether Dome.” Morton’s patient breathed through a custom-built inhaler apparatus consisting of a glass globe, a sponge soaked with a mixture of ether and oil of orange, and tubes and valves. The dean of the Harvard Medical School then cut out a tumor from the unconscious patient’s neck. When the man awoke, he reported feeling as though his neck had been scratched. “Gentlemen, this is no Humbug,” proclaimed the dean.

While the effect of the ether was quite real, Morton’s efforts to disguise the true nature of the anesthetic substance were deceptive, and designed to ensure his rights to an ordinary gas. He added oil of orange to hide ether’s characteristic odor in hopes of obtaining a patent on what he called “Letheon.” In addition, he commissioned the inhaler both to impress the audience and to provide an opportunity for another patent. Medical practitioners soon realized that “Letheon” was simply diethyl ether. Its use for surgery, dentistry, and childbirth spread rapidly, and Morton failed to make a fortune from the discovery.

Ether also seeped into popular culture, fascinating people with its ability to vanquish pain. As Scottish doctor Douglas Maclagen proclaimed in his comic “Ether Song” of 1850 (set to the tune of “Yankee Doodle”):

That wonderments will never cease
In physic, is most sure, Sir;
“The vapours” once were a disease, But now they are a cure, Sir.
So if aches and pains should torture you,
On Ether spend your money;
You may be drawn and quartered too,
And only think it funny.

In 1847 French cartoonist Charles-Amedée de Noé, known by his pen name of Cham, presented satirical vignettes of the drug in the journal Le Charivari under the mock-serious title “Medical Studies of Ether.” Dueling swordsmen engage in an “affair of honor” with bottles held to their noses while they ravage each other with their rapiers, oblivious to the pain; a boy receiving a fierce whipping sniffs at his bottle, a rapturous expression on his face; another man, waking up to find a wooden leg by his bedside, is appalled to discover that his real leg has been amputated while he slept.