A Century of Caring: Anesthesia

One of the major medical accomplishments of the nineteenth century was the development of anesthesia. Nitrous oxide and ether were introduced by American dentists in 1845 and 1846, respectively.

While attending an entertaining public demonstration of nitrous oxide, Horace Wells (1815-1848) saw a volunteer stumble and injure himself without seeming to feel any pain. Realizing this effect could produce great advances in surgery, he began experimenting with the gas in his dental office. When he was confident that nitrous oxide could indeed be used during surgery, Wells arranged a demonstration at Massachusetts General Hospital in January, 1845. Unfortunately, Wells removed the gas before the patient was fully unconscious, and his cries of pain resulted in Wells being hissed and booed from the room. Wells continued using nitrous oxide in his private practice, but because of his public mishap, it did not see widespread use as an anesthetic until 1862.

Wells discussed his work with a former pupil, William T. G. Morton (1819-1868), who began experimenting with ether as an alternative to nitrous oxide. On 16 October, 1846, Morton demonstrated ether in front of the same class that had seen Wells' failed demonstration of nitrous oxide. Morton administered the ether, and Dr. John Collins Warren removed a small tumor from a man's neck. As the operation concluded, with no painful cries of any kind from the patient, Warren proclaimed to the hushed audience, "Gentlemen, this is no humbug!" In very short order, ether became commonplace in operating rooms on both sides of the Atlantic.