The marble and granite statue in the Boston Common depicts a physician in medieval clothing holding a cloth next to the face of a man who seems to have passed out. An inscription on the base of the statue reads “To commemorate that the inhaling of ether causes insensibility to pain, first proved to the world at the Mass. General Hospital in Boston, October A.D. 1846.” No names are mentioned.
It was on Oct. 16, 1846, that dentist William Morton ushered in the era of surgical anesthesia by putting printer Gilbert Abbot to sleep with fumes of ether from an inhaler he had devised. Surgeon John Collins Warren then proceeded to remove a tumour from the patient’s neck without any of the usual screaming or thrashing about.
Warren looked up at the doctors who had witnessed the event in the surgical theatre that would become known as the “ether dome” and proclaimed, “Gentlemen, this is no humbug.”
That was in reference to a failed attempt by another dentist, Horace Wells, to demonstrate anesthesia with nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, at the same hospital. In that case, Wells hadn’t waited long enough for the nitrous oxide to take effect and the patient howled in pain as Wells attempted to extract a tooth. He exited in disgrace to the cries of “humbug.”
Although Morton gets credit for the first organized demonstration of ether anesthesia, he certainly was not the first to experiment with the chemical. The sleep-inducing effect of ether was first recorded 300 years earlier, when famed Swiss alchemist, philosopher and physician Paracelsus noted that its vapours would induce a state of unresponsiveness in chickens. Ether does not occur in nature, so where did Paracelsus get it?
In 1540, German physician and botanist Valerius Cordus discovered that heating alcohol with sulphuric acid, then known as oil of vitriol, yielded a new highly flammable substance with a characteristic smell. Vitriol was the archaic name for compounds that today are termed “sulphates.”
Cordus discovered that heating a solution of green vitriol, or iron (II) sulphate, a naturally occurring mineral, yielded “oil of vitriol.” Then in the 17th century, German-Dutch chemist Johann Glauber found that burning sulphur with saltpetre (potassium nitrate) produced sulphuric acid.
Potassium nitrate decomposes to yield the oxygen needed to convert sulphur to sulphur trioxide, which dissolves in water to produce sulphuric acid. In the 19th century, potassium nitrate was replaced by vanadium pentoxide, which acted as a catalyst allowing for easier production of sulphur trioxide. This was the method used to produce the sulphuric acid needed for the synthesis of ether in the 1800s.
Before ether’s triumphant performance in 1846 at Massachusetts General, it had developed a reputation as a recreational substance. Middle-class partygoers and medical students both in Europe and America frolicked under the influence of ether. More curiously, drinking ether was common in Europe and was particularly popular in Ireland, where the Catholic Church promoted abstinence from alcohol and asked people to pledge not to drink alcohol. Drinking ether was a way to get around the pledge. Ether was sold in pubs and shops until the 1890s, when it was classified as a poison.
Dr. Crawford Long had taken part in ether frolics as a medical student at the University of Pennsylvania, and when he took over a rural medical practice in Georgia in 1841, he recalled that ether frolickers sometimes developed bumps and bruises of which they seemed to be oblivious.
Could ether be used to relieve pain, he now wondered? The answer came when he delivered his wife’s second baby with the aid of ether anesthesia. Long went on to perform a painless dental extraction, and in 1842 used an ether-soaked towel to put James Venable to sleep before proceeding to excise two tumours from his neck. But Long was not an academic, was not interested in publishing, nor did he crave fame or fortune.
It was two years after William Morton’s celebrated demonstration that Long documented his efforts in the Southern Medical and Surgical Journal in a paper titled “An account of the first use of Sulphuric Ether by Inhalation as an Anaesthetic in Surgical Operations.”
He described a number of cases, including the amputation of two fingers of a boy who was etherized during one procedure and not the other. Long reported that the patient suffered terribly without ether but was insensible with it. The reason he had waited to publish, he said, was the need to overcome criticism by local colleagues, who had suggested that the ether effect was just an example of mesmerism, which at the time was promoted as a pain-reduction method.
With his publication, Long added his name to the list of people claiming to have been the inventors of ether anesthesia. There was William Morton, of course, and Charles Jackson, a physician who had given up medicine to establish a private laboratory for analytical chemistry, where he also taught students, including Morton, who had come to expand his scientific knowledge.
Jackson claimed that he had introduced Morton to ether anesthesia, and the two got involved in a rancorous battle for years. There was also a Berkshire Medical College student, William E. Clarke, who claimed he had first used ether to put patients to sleep.
It was because of the controversy that the Boston monument does not bear the name of any of the claimants. But it does bear a biblical quote from Isaiah: “This also cometh forth from the Lord of Hosts which is wonderful and excellent in working,” addressing the worry people had that relief of pain was somehow interfering with God’s will.
The quote suggests that medical intervention is itself a gift from God and is backed up by a relief on the statue depicting a woman who represents Science Triumphant sitting atop a throne of test tubes, burners and distillers, with a Madonna and Child looking on with approval. There is also a Civil War scene on the side of the monument with a Union field surgeon standing ready to amputate a wounded soldier’s leg. The soldier sleeps peacefully. Thanks to ether, he would feel no pain.