How Nobody Invented Anesthesia
EVERYONE KNEW THAT LAUGHING GAS and ether made people insensible to pain, yet for decades no one thought of using them in surgery. Then three people at once claimed it was their idea alone.
IN 1833 A NEWSPAPER IN Albany, New York, printed a rave review of a demonstration of nitrous oxide gas presented by an itinerant lecturer named Dr. Coult—Dr. Coult of London, New York, and Calcutta.
As a matter of fact, though, Dr. Coult was not quite a doctor. He was Samuel Colt, a tall nineteen-year-old from Connecticut who had already attended a boarding school in Amherst, Massachusetts, dropped out of the merchant marine, quit his father’s small textile factory—twice—and, more important, completed designs for the first practical revolver-type pistol. He had indeed been to New York, London, and Calcutta (as a sailor), but he hadn’t had to go nearly that far from home to learn about nitrous oxide. Whenever he and the chief chemist at the textile factory grew bored, they did what many laboratory workers of the day did: They indulged in a whiff of laughing gas, as it was also called.
“The effect which the gas produces upon the system,” reported the Albany Microscope , “is truly astonishing. The person who inhales it becomes completely insensible, and remains in that state for about the space of three minutes, when his senses become restored.”
Nitrous oxide was discovered and isolated in England in 1772. It was soon the subject of a book by a leading American scientist named Samuel Latham Mitchill, a book written in rhyming verse (a scientific fad that didn’t quite catch on). Mitchill considered the gas “diabolical,” causing cancer, scurvy, and leprosy. Refuting these findings, the British chemist Sir Humphry Davy, then twenty-one, wrote a booklet on nitrous oxide in 1800. In it he acknowledged that the first effect of inhalation was sublime, an “ideal existence.” The second was laughter and a desire to communicate some of the overwhelming joy unleashed by the gas, the laughing gas. The third effect, after a large dose, was insensibility to feeling, a fact that led Davy to suggest that nitrous oxide could probably be used to alleviate pain during surgical operations.
Laughing gas did not belong to the world of medicine, though. The closest it came may have been the occasion when Dr. Coult was working the Mississippi and happened to be a passenger on a riverboat in the throes of a cholera panic. The passengers praised God; there was a doctor on their ship. They besieged Colt’s cabin. He had a panic of his own. Eventually, and very reluctantly, he saw the sick and doled out a purgative from the ship’s dispensary, along with the only palliative he knew, which was laughing gas. The patients all recovered nicely, leading them to spread word of a medical miracle and leading Sam Colt to conclude that none of them had had cholera in the first place.
NITROUS OXIDE WAS INDEED A medical miracle, but throughout the first part of the nineteenth century no one knew it; it was relegated to the world of chemistry as a mere listing among gases, and to the world of entertainment as the basis of a show, like a trained monkey. The medical world had been searching for relief from the pain of surgery for so long that it had largely given up real hope of ever finding such a thing. Like a patient worn down by constant distress, two thousand years of it, medical science had long since stopped looking for a cure-all. Pain was a part of life, and of surgery. One writer recalled a genial bachelor he knew, an old friend of the family, who had had several deep disappointments over the years and borne each of them gracefully, stoically. But when a doctor told him that he would have to undergo an operation, he went home, wrote out a will, and killed himself. That wasn’t a rare occurrence or an unreasoned one in face of the horrifying prospect of surgery before anesthesia.
The fact that an anesthetic was so near at hand for a good half-century before it was finally utilized might be a mystery if progress itself were really the gentle downward slope that it ought to be, falling predictably on an axis between need and capability. Instead it’s a topography jagged enough to hurt. An anesthetic was needed no more urgently in 1846, when nitrous oxide and ether gases were finally brought forward, than it had been over the preceding decades, when nitrous oxide “lectures” and ether “frolics” were popular and well-known diversions, or than it had been in 1800, when Davy first suggested a surgical use for a gas that was “capable of destroying physical pain.”
The men who finally promoted anesthetic gases were not “inventors” or “discoverers.” They didn’t even discover the painkilling and sleep-inducing quality of the gases. Those things were commonly known, though considered only for their entertainment value. The achievement in the development of anesthesia was neither lofty nor scientific; it was only in bringing a fresh perspective to an unhappy, old problem. Noble as that is, anyone could have done it. But no one did until 1846, and in the meantime the specter of surgery was wrenching for doctors and patients alike. Old men killed themselves rather than face it, and progress, usually cursed for going too fast for individuals, went too slowly.
Before 1846 the greatest advance in surgery was generally considered to be the ligature—the stitch—introduced by a French military surgeon named Ambroise Paré in the sixteenth century. Without it even an operation successful by itself was likely to result in the patient’s bleeding to death or dying as a direct result of the methods used to close a wound, the most popular being cauterization by the application of hot irons. In the case of amputation the stump might be dipped into boiling pitch to seal the blood vessels.
Exerting the newfound power to close a wound as well as open one, surgeons lifted themselves out of the ranks of mere barbers and into the more respectable realm of scientific medicine. Indeed, two of the surgical fads of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century represent the luxury of what might be considered elective surgery and reflect the surgeon’s sheer delight in his powers. One was trepanning (boring a hole in the skull), to relieve pressures there; as a later physician remarked, “many a surgeon, in France particularly, thought as little of tapping a man’s head as he would of tapping a wine-cask.” The other fad involved making an incision in the stomach, according to the theories of a Frenchman named Broussais, who thought that inflammation of the digestive tract was the cause of a wide range of diseases.
Amputations continued to be the most common form of surgery, though, because while other physicians practiced medicine in the professional sense of the word, to improve their knowledge and expertise, surgeons were limited to repeating certain simple procedures. All operations consisted of a very few steps. Surgeons could develop ideas regarding complicated operations—and try them out on cadavers—but real patients could not withstand the torture of protracted cutting. Surgeons “practiced” in the sporting sense, improving their times and basing their reputations on them. One of the proud achievements of the eighteenth century, for example, was the fiftyfour-second lithotomy (removal of stones from the bladder).
SCIENCES RELATED TO medicine—chemistry, biology, botany, zoology—advanced in the Age of Enlightenment of the late eighteenth century and led to new fields, including pharmacology, bacteriology, and nutrition. Surgical science, though, would never move forward at the same rate as other medical fields without the introduction of an effective anesthesia, a true painkiller.
Pain itself is a difficult entity to understand, existing as it does in the mind as well as at the source. A few early painkillers attempted to isolate the pain of surgery at the source by the use of tourniquets or even ice to numb the area to be cut. Most, though, worked on the mind. The avant-garde technique for painkilling in the early 1840s was called mesmerism, which was hypnotism in its earliest form. It had been developed in the 1770s by a wealthy Swiss, Franz Mesmer, who could induce a trance and control what he defined as the “animal magnetism” of patients by staring into their eyes and stroking their skin lightly, sometimes with a magnet, all while he played the harmonica, with incense wafting around the room. Mesmer was a showman—too much so for authorities in Vienna, who investigated his theories and then gave him twentyfour hours to vacate the city—but his basic method was re-examined in the 1830s, when a Scottish surgeon renamed it hypnotism and it began to be frequently used on patients facing surgery. Mesmerism could be amazingly powerful in separating a person’s mental state from the physical one, but it had its own peculiar drawback in that it was time-consuming, taking between forty-five minutes and twentyfour hours to produce a trance. It also had the drawback common to every early painkiller: Its effectiveness varied wildly from one person to another.
The same was true for narcotic plants used in surgery, from ancient times to the 1840s: mandrake, hemlock, opium, and even lettuce. With the strongest of such substances, the unpredictability was double-edged and dangerous. The same dose that alleviated pain for some minority of patients did little or nothing for others. That was usual for early painkillers. Furthermore, a strong narcotic like opium had dangerous side effects, so that a reasonable dose could seriously disturb or even kill a patient being prepared for surgery. More typically, those facing surgery in the 1840s opted for the relative safety of alcohol—as much wine or whiskey as they could drink.
None of it was good enough. Accounts of operations performed before the advent of anesthesia are horrifying— and Gothic in detail. Hospital operating rooms were located high up in towers or in cupolas or domes, apart from all else, so that other patients and people on the street wouldn’t hear what was going on inside. Once the patient was in place, usually strapped onto a table or in a chair, and perhaps given a last jigger of liquor, the surgeon arrived accompanied by five or six burly men. In one case recalled by an English surgeon, the patient wriggled out of the straps at the last minute and escaped to lock himself in the nearest bathroom. The surgeon himself broke down the door and dragged the terrified man back to the operating table. The New York Tribune described an amputation in detail in 1841. The patient was a young man, cradled tenderly the whole time by his father and at the same time held brusquely in place by the attendants. As the surgeons—there were two—made their cuts, the boy’s screams were so full of misery that everyone who could left the room. The first part of the operation complete, the young man watched “with glazed agony” as the chief surgeon pushed a saw past the sliced muscles—still twitching—and listened as it cut through the bone with three heavy passes, back and forth.
THAT NEED TO LOOK WAS ODDLY typical. A man who survived an amputation without anesthesia described it much later: “During the operation, in spite of the pain it occasioned, my senses were preternaturally acute, as I have been told they generally are in patients in such circumstances. I watched all that the surgeons did with a fascinated intensity. I still recall with unwelcome vividness the spreading out of the instruments; the twisting of the tourniquet; the first incision; the fingering of the sawed bone; the sponge pressed on the flap, the tying of the blood vessels, the stitching of the skin, and the bloody dismembered limb lying on the floor. These are not pleasant remembrances. For a long time, they haunted me.…”
The young New York patient’s expression of “glazed agony” was also typical, though it boded even worse than wild screaming because it reflected the wrenched mental state in which most patients emerged from the operating room. Sometimes it faded, but sometimes it never did; many who recovered physically were permanently disturbed by the anguish. Those who gave reasons for opting against surgery often pointed to the probability that they would “never be the same again,” a prospect that made life seem less worth fighting for. A military surgeon suggested that civil operations were even worse than battlefield injuries, which were at least borne in the passion of a cause, a form of self-hypnosis, he suggested. On the subject of severe pain and the stunning spectacle of seeing and hearing, let alone feeling, one’s flesh being cut apart, there were many people who justified the lack of an effective painkiller by asserting that such experiences were just as necessary to life as were joy and pleasure.
When Sam Colt set off on tour in 1832 with his bags of nitrous oxide, he joined legions of itinerant lecturers who served up worldly knowledge, an hour or so at a time, in every American town with a public hall. Or even those without them: Colt often set up his show on a street corner. More entertaining than the average sermon, more educational than theatrical shows, the popular lecture—the documentary of its day—offered young people somewhere quite respectable to go of an evening.
Colt’s particular specialty was nitrous oxide, but ether gas had also been the basis of rollicking chemistry lectures for decades. After discussing the discovery of the gas (officially described as diethyl or sulfuric ether, because it was made by distilling alcohol with sulfuric acid) in the sixteenth century and its medical uses in the treatment of respiratory ailments, the lecturer would invite volunteers from the audience to come onstage to inhale some ether. One advertisement from a nitrous oxide demonstration promised: “ THE EFFECT of the GAS is to make those who inhale it either Laugh, Sing, Dance, Speak or Fight &c., &c., according to the leading trait of their character. They seem to retain consciousness enough not to say or do that which they would have occasion to regret.”
Fashionable young people soon learned to skip over the lecture, arranging instead for the lecturer to bring a bag of ether—or nitrous oxide as the case may have been—directly to parties held for the purpose. In larger towns they could ask a doctor or a chemistry shop, if there was one, to supply either gas on demand. The twentieth-century descendants of such middle-American hedonists would go in for bathtub gin or pot parties, with the difference that there was nothing illegal about an ether frolic. High spirits came on quickly and then wore off completely, the only real problem being that people sometimes suffered bruises or even broken bones during the mayhem of ether intoxication without feeling it until long afterward.
A Jefferson, Georgia, doctor named Crawford Long presided over many of the frolics around his hometown in about 1842, recalling of the first one that the guests “were so much pleased with the exhilarating effects of ether, that they afterwards inhaled it frequently, and induced others to do so, and its inhalation became quite fashionable in this country, and in fact extended from this place through several counties in this part of Georgia.”
IT IS PART OF THE RECORD ON THE development of anesthesia that Crawford Long successfully used ether as a painkiller on a handful of his patients during minor surgery over the next few years. Though he never sought to publicize his technique until after others had done so, he has nonetheless been celebrated ever since, and even been allowed a tinge of sympathy, for having achieved the great breakthrough, if only in isolation. Yet his failure to project ether as anesthesia—outside greater Jefferson, Georgia—only prolonged suffering worldwide for five years.
A better start was made on December 10, 1844, but it was only a start. When Professor Gardner Colton, a former medical student, brought his laughing-gas apparatus to Union Hall in Hartford, Connecticut, a dentist named Horace Wells happened to be among those who accepted the general invitation to try the gas onstage, where he seems to have belied its promise that volunteers wouldn’t do or say anything they would regret. He “made a spectacle of himself,” Mrs. Horace Wells reported.
One of the other volunteers skinned his legs rather badly in his cavorting under the influence of the gas. Sitting onstage, with his head just clearing, Dr. Wells asked the other volunteer if his legs hurt. The question itself was a surprise’to the other man, because he didn’t feel anything at all. The sight of his own bloodied legs was even more of a surprise. All at once it occurred to Dr. Wells that the nitrous oxide gas could be used as a painkiller during dental work. At least it appeared to other people and by subsequent events that the inspiration was instantaneous. Dr. Wells claimed a few years later that his new thinking had been based on analogies he found between the suspension of feeling during battle and during drunkenness and the need for such a state during surgery: “I was led to inquire if the same result would not follow by the inhalation of some exhilarating gas, the effects of which would pass off immediately, leaving the system none the worse for its use. I accordingly procured some nitrous oxide gas.…” Whether it was reasoning or idle observation that brought Dr. Wells to a moment of discovery in December 1844, it was that moment that led eventually to the adoption of anesthesia for surgery around the world. It was also the moment that, Dr. Wells’s wife said in light of later events, brought her family “an unspeakable evil.”
After the lecture Dr. Wells asked Colton to bring a bag of nitrous oxide to his dental office, where a colleague would extract a tooth while Wells himself was under the influence of the gas. Colton obliged, and the tooth came out not with the usual excruciation but with a sensation that Dr. Wells described as no more painful than “the prick of a pin.”
Horace Wells was a high-strung man, a competent practitioner and well-meaning perhaps to a fault. He had the right invention, but he was not the right inventor. After further experiments with nitrous oxide in dental surgery, he approached the nation’s foremost surgeon, John C. Warren, of the Massachusetts General Hospital, in Boston. Mass General, as it is commonly called, had opened in 1821 and was the nation’s leading hospital for generations, pioneering ambitious medical specialties as well as areas now considered basic to good care, including a strong nursing corps, cleanliness, and continuing education. Dr. Warren arranged for Wells to demonstrate the painkilling qualities of nitrous oxide in January 1845 in a tooth extraction before a group of students. The procedure seemed to have been a success until the very end, when the patient made a sound; some reports say that it was a mere groan, others that it was a full-blown cry. The patient later said that he felt no pain and didn’t know why he’d made a sound. At the time, though, the audience interpreted the sound rudely and jeered the upstart dentist from the wilds of Hartford, Connecticut, as a humbug. Another pioneer might have jeered right back at them, or at least put up a stronger defense than Wells did (all that he would say was that he had taken the bag away too soon). Another pioneer would have persevered and made fuel out of derision. But Horace Wells slunk away from the operating room and then retreated to Hartford, where he took to his bed and remained sick for most of the rest of the year.
The process of bringing anesthesia to surgery apparently required qualities that Horace Wells did not have. In Boston, on the way to his appointment in J. C. Warren’s operating room, Wells had discussed his discovery with an old colleague, William Morton, who would prove himself exactly the right man to bring anesthetic gases to the front. He was everything that Wells was not: aggressive, savvy, selfish enough to be fearless, downright greedy, and lucky.
Though Morton wanted ultimately to be a physician, he had studied dentistry first, as one of a few students taken in by Wells in Hartford. Entering the field on his own, he set up an office in Boston and undertook general medical studies, first under the tutelage of a well-known chemist, Dr. Charles Jackson, and subsequently at the Harvard Medical School. When Wells arrived in Boston in 1845, both Morton and Jackson met with him to discuss his ideas about using nitrous oxide in surgery. Neither evinced much interest, yet the idea obviously remained with them.
Morton later swore that Wells’s tip had nothing to do with his own search for a surgical painkiller; he maintained that he had heard the narcotic properties of sulfuric ether mentioned in one of his Harvard lectures and thought out the possibilities of its use in surgery all on his own. According to others, though, when Morton was on the verge of losing a very good job of dental surgery in 1846 because the patient was afraid of the pain, he recalled Wells’s experience and asked Jackson for a supply of nitrous oxide; in an offhanded way Jackson said that he was all out of nitrous oxide but that ether would work just as well.
FOR HIS PART, JACKSON HIMSELF later insisted that he had developed sound theories on the use of ether gas in surgery all on his own, ideas, he said, subsequently lifted whole-cloth by William Morton. The actual story of the exchange of ideas among the three men, Wells, Morton, and Jackson, has ever since been hopelessly tangled up with the self-serving recollections each made in the grueling war they later waged for credit for the innovation.
According to the recorded events of 1846, though, William Morton did pursue a program of experimentation with ether in dental surgery that convinced him of the worth of the gas in hospital, or “capital,” surgery. As had Dr. Wells, he applied to J. C. Warren for permission to demonstrate ether in an operation to be performed at the Massachusetts General Hospital. A hospital surgeon wrote back, inviting him “to administer to a patient who is then to be operated upon, the preparation which you have invented.” The date set was October 16, 1846.
Morton was on the eve of triumph, and he knew it. Ether was going to be hailed as a monumental gift to humanity, and he knew it. The man who controlled ether sales would be rich beyond reckoning, and he knew that too. To make sure that he would be just that man, Morton did a grubby thing: He added a few harmless impurities to ether, mostly in a vain attempt to disguise its sweet odor, and he named the secret concoction Letheon. No one but William Morton would know what was in Letheon. After all, a person couldn’t patent plain ether gas and grow rich, but Letheon was another matter, and Morton took out a U.S. patent on it, in a loose arrangement with Dr. Charles Jackson.
Before a small audience of surgeons and students at Mass General, Morton administered Letheon to a man with a tumor in his neck. Dr. Warren stepped forward, made an incision, and removed the tumor. Then the famously flinty surgeon turned to the audience with tears in his eyes. “Gentlemen,” he said, “ this is no humbug.” The next day Morton was just as successful, attending to a woman who was having a different kind of growth removed from her shoulder. After that there was a delay of several weeks; allegedly, hospital administrators insisted on knowing the composition of Letheon before they would cooperate further. By November 7, when Morton next appeared in the dome at Mass General, to give Letheon to a woman requiring the amputation of her leg, the galleries were jammed with doctors, students, and others who had heard of the new surgical phenomenon.
The operating theater was state-of-the-art for 1846, an immaculate table surrounded by cases of precision equipment. The sheer clinical rigorousness of the place may have been compromised by two decorations in a corner—an Egyptian mummy resting in its sarcophagus and a skeleton in a curtained glass case—yet their presence was not nearly as haunting to the proceedings as were the hooks and rings locked into the walls, left over from the past, the past that had ended the very month before, when the strongest straps, not wisps of gas, held patients in place.
AS THE TIME OF THE AMPUTA tion drew near, the whole atmosphere in the operating theater was charged with excitement and importance, utterly unlike the day three years before when Wells had stood in the same place. And Morton was different too, described by Daniel Slade, a doctor who watched the procedure, as “a man of commanding figure and appearance, very erect, and dressed, as he usually was, in a stylish fashion peculiar to himself.” Morton entered the room a few minutes after a procession of six Mass General surgeons, including Dr. Warren, and was followed by the patient, Alice Mohan, carried on a stretcher. Morton spoke gently to Miss Mohan and told her how to breathe deeply and slowly from the tube connected through his special apparatus to a container of ether gas. Within three minutes Miss Mohan was unconscious, and within two minutes after that her right leg was off. A short time later, as the surgeons were tightening the ligatures that closed the wound, the patient awoke. She had to be told that the operation was over and that her leg was gone. With that, reported Dr. Slade, “Morton was the hero of the hour, and was regarded with feelings akin to those which might have been awakened had an angel suddenly appeared.”
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., the father of the future Supreme Court justice, was an eminent physician, and he rejoiced in the discovery of ether gas as a painkiller. In the aftermath of the Mohan operation, he sent a letter to William Morton in which he made a long-lasting contribution of his own. “Everybody wants to have a hand in the great discovery,” he wrote on November 21, 1846. “All I will do is to give you a hint or two as to names, or the name, to be applied to the state produced, and to the agent.” From the Greek an for “in-” and aesthesia for “-sensibility,” Holmes created the words anesthetic and anesthesia .
One afternoon in the middle of December 1846, a medical-school class in Glasgow, Scotland, was kept waiting for a scheduled anatomy lecture, and the students were not patient about it, chanting and throwing things around the room. Finally the professor appeared, grave with emotion, to tell them that the class was canceled. A ship had arrived that morning from Boston with news, the greatest news that had ever been received by surgical science, he said. A painless operation had been performed at the Massachusetts General Hospital, and an attempt would be made to repeat the technique that very afternoon at the Royal Infirmary in Glasgow. The students followed their teacher to the infirmary operating theater, which was already packed, to observe a successful operation under ether, albeit crudely applied through a sponge wrapped in a towel. The same sort of trial, surrounded by the same momentous anticipation, was repeated across Europe, and before the middle of 1847 ether was in use in hospitals around the world.
Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal reported on a great many ether cases, including one in which a patient inhaled the ether gas for a few minutes, as he was directed to do, and then turned to those assembled to watch the operation and informed them that the process was “a piece of humbug” and a dismal failure. All the while the surgeons were going about the operation on him, so complete was his insensibility to pain.
Within a short time anesthesia was in use for more than just operations. Army physicians began administering it to malingerers, to see if their disabilities were real or feigned; deafness, limps, and certain deformities sometimes disappeared, along with self-control, under gas. Prison wardens tried using it on criminals on the way to the gallows, though that practice was outlawed in some U.S. states on the basis that there was no point in reducing the suffering involved in capital punishment. As for the criminal uses of ether, to induce insensibility just long enough to perpetrate a robbery or other injustice, that has remained a real possibility up to the present day.
Within the medical profession Dr. James Simpson of Edinburgh began almost immediately to use ether in the delivery of babies, his specialty.
A number of conservative churchmen tried to ban this practice, on the basis that the Bible itself mandated pain in childbirth, but most such arguments petered out when Queen Victoria opted to deliver her own baby, Leopold, under painkilling gas in 1853. (The man who administered it, John Snow, was the first physician to make a specialty of anesthesiology.)
To James Simpson, ether gas was inconvenient to use and rather weak. In the course of continuing experiments to find a substitute, he invited two colleagues to his house on the evening of November 4, 1847. There they sat around the dining table inhaling likely compounds and recording the results. On sniffing chloroform with the others, Simpson suddenly found himself transported from his dining room to a cotton mill.
As he awoke, he realized that he was lying under the dining table. He slowly recognized that what he had taken for the sounds of the cotton mill were the deep snoring of one colleague and the attempts of the other to kick the table apart. “This is far better and stronger than ether,” Dr. Simpson concluded, before he even got up from the floor. Chloroform, which could be administered off a damp handkerchief, soon became the most popular anesthetic in Britain. Dr. Simpson further suggested in an early pamphlet that soldiers could take vials of it into battle as standard issue and use it on themselves when they were in pain and waiting for medics. Conversely, though, unnecessary deaths from the improper use of anesthetics led countries on the European continent to set the first controls on those who could administer it and when.
EUROPEANS SEARCHED FOR sentiments lofty enough to convey their gratitude to America, the country that had given the world anesthesia, and they nearly all couched it in terms of the largest possible family, that of humanity itself. “A boon in favour of humanity,” the North British Review called ether in May 1847. “Among the most eminent of the benefits yet bestowed upon suffering humanity,” said Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal the same year. And where humanity suffers the most—in war—anesthesia was credited in the course of the following twenty years with alleviating at least some of the misery left by battles in the Crimean War and the American Civil War.
After the great discovery, however, onlookers were left with a problem: the discoverers. They in turn were left with an even bigger problem: one another. As soon as Charles Jackson saw William Morton being hailed as the “hero of the hour,” he leaped forward with his own claim to have discovered the anesthetic qualities of ether. Horace Wells then piped up with his assertion that he had originated the use of nitrous oxide as a painkiller and instigated the thinking of Morton and Jackson along the same lines. Morton, fending off the other two, tried in vain to assert his patent on Letheon; when that effort collapsed—because everyone with a nose seemed to recognize ether as the main ingredient—he began a new career, pestering the U.S. Congress for a stipend in lieu of lost profits from the unenforceable patent. The claims, counterclaims, affidavits, and ongoing testimony on behalf of the three men filled thousands of pages in any arena that would entertain the debate, from Congress and the Congressional Globe to the proceedings of the Academy of Sciences in France (special Ether Commission), other professional journals, and, throughout the mid-nineteenth century, many prominent publications in the popular press.
Having originated the process of anesthesia for the sake of humanity, Wells, Morton, and Jackson were driven for the rest of their lives by the lowest of humanity’s impulses, jealousy. It is odd to think that in delivering millions of people from suffering, they brought so much of it on themselves. All three died in a state of madness.
Disappointed by the failure of nitrous oxide to rival ether as an anesthetic (though it would later become the standard treatment in dental surgery), Horace Wells turned to chloroform, testing it on himself—not with the self-control of a scientist but with the abandon of an addict. During a bender in New York in 1848, he was arrested for throwing acid on a woman. While in jail, he came to the sad realization that he was no longer sane. He wrote lucidly of his condition to his wife and then ended his life by slitting a major artery in his leg, taking care to anesthetize himself first.
William Morton also died in disarray in New York City. Diagnosed with nervous collapse after a lobbying mission in Washington in 1868, he jumped out of a moving buggy to plunge his head into a lake in Central Park. Dragged out of the water, he fell unconscious and died at the hospital that same day.
Dr. Charles Jackson went more quietly. Having divided his career between scholarly publications in geology and intense attacks on Morion’s claim to have originated anesthesia (Jackson also claimed credit for inventing guncotton and the telegraph), he was committed to an insane asylum near Boston, where he died in 1880, after seven years’ confinement.
Apart and by themselves, Wells, Morton, and Jackson were ordinary men, but as a collision of ideas and emotions, they made a spark of brilliance for which a whole world had waited helplessly for a half-century.