Medical Technology

Who Discovered Anesthesia Ether Nitrous Oxide

Julie Helms's image for:
"Who Discovered Anesthesia Ether Nitrous Oxide"
Image by: 

When one thinks of the discoverer of the polio vaccine—Jonas Salk jumps to mind, the discoverer of germs leading to disease—Louis Pasteur; but who comes to mind for one of the most important medical discoveries ever: anesthesia...for most people, no one.

The problem is the lack of consensus on who should get credit for the discovery. Four American men claimed the honor in the 1840s. Decades of debate in Congress (to award a $100,000 prize) never settled the issue and the money was never awarded. It would appear that the battle for the honor led to the eventual destruction of three of the four men.

*Dr. Crawford Long

 In 1840s America, nitrous oxide (laughing gas) and ether were all the rage at parties. It was at one of these “ether-frolics” that Dr. Crawford Long of Georgia noticed that during the silly antics of the party-goers they seemed numb to the pain of banging legs into furniture and other bumps and bruises.

One of Dr. Long's friends had been reluctant to have two small tumors removed due to the anticipation of pain. So Dr. Long suggested trying the ether while the tumors were excised. The friend, a regular user of ether and nitrous oxide, agreed to having one removed as a trial. So in 1842 the first use of an anesthetic was used in the removal of a tumor. The friend slept through the procedure and felt nothing.

 Dr. Long recorded in his accounts book:
“James Venable, March 30, 1842, Ether and Exsecting Tumor, $2.00.”

He was probably the first to USE anesthesia but part of being the discoverer is to MAKE KNOWN your discovery. And here Dr. Long failed. Seven years later he submitted a paper on it to the Southern Medical and Surgical Journal in 1849 after the controversy of discovery had long been brewing elsewhere.

 *Dr. Horace Wells

 Dr. Wells was a dentist and inventor. He was always on the look-out for ways to make dentistry less painful. He knew people walked around with rotting teeth in their mouths in preference to the pain of extraction.

One day in December, 1844 he saw an advertisement for a nitrous-oxide “exhibition.” These traveling lecturers went from city to city lecturing on the uses of nitrous-oxide (as an amusement) and then they gave a demonstration. Dr. Wells attended the exhibition and witnessed a man cavorting about, high on the gas, bash his leg. The blood was soaking through his pants and the man seemed to not have noticed. He confronted the man who indeed was shocked to see he was bleeding. He felt nothing. An idea was born (again).

The next day Dr. Wells procured some nitrous-oxide from the lecturer. An associate agreed to pull a bothersome wisdom tooth of Dr. Wells. The dentist inhaled the gas till he slumped and the tooth was pulled. Dr. Wells felt very little though he was vaguely aware of his surroundings.

After testing his discovery on a number of clients he applied to Massachusetts General Hospital, associated with Harvard Medical School, to do a live demonstration in the operating theater in front of several hundred witnesses. Unfortunately he did not use enough nitrous-oxide and his patient hollered when the tooth was pulled. Dr. Wells ran from the building in humiliation as all the doctors in attendance laughed at the foolish demonstration. He did not pursue his discovery for a number of years.

*Dr. William Morton

In attendance that fateful day in the operating theater with Dr. Wells was his former partner Dr. Morton, also a dentist. At this time Morton had already been working with “ether drops” that were put on the gums to numb them before removing the tooth. Wells' “failure” spurred Morton on to do more with the ether.

In September 1846, Dr. Morton perfected his technique (frequently practicing on himself and the family dog) and yanked a patient's tooth painlessly using ether. His home estate was called Etherton for the amount of time he spent working on his discovery. He also developed a glass globe and rubber tube apparatus to inhale the gas, instead of soaking a cloth and placing it over the nose and mouth.

Dr. Morton had a similar demonstration at the same operating theater at Massachusetts General Hospital. This time he was using ether as opposed to Wells' nitrous-oxide. His demonstration was hailed worldwide as a success.

All may have gone well for him except his jealous mentor stepped on to the scene and demanded to be recognized for his contribution.

*Dr. Charles Jackson

A former teacher of Dr. Morton was Dr. Charles Jackson. Jackson was considered a genius as he was a trained medical doctor, chemist and geologist. Though stories vary it seems that he supplied advice to Morton about the ether drops and the importance of keeping ether fresh in order for it to remain efficacious. Morton never let on why he was asking questions of his mentor about the ether so Jackson felt completely blindsided by all the praise being heaped on Morton after the public demonstration.

Jackson began to lie, saying he was the brains behind the whole operation and deserved the credit. In an effort to appease Jackson, Morton offered to have his name put on the patent too and give him 10% of all profits. Jackson was only emboldened by this and began to scream louder. Jackson was well-connected professionally and socially and people around the world were beginning to listen to him and believe him.

However, Dr. Jackson had attempted to steal previous discoveries also. He fought for recognition for being responsible for the telegraph that was developed by his (former) friend Samuel Morse. There were several instances of this type of behavior. It seemed he always came close to the discovery but never took that final step. He was however, completely successful in destroying Dr. Morton professionally and personally.

*The Battle

At this point all of the scientists involved in the discovery of anesthesia were fighting each other through a battle of letters to newspapers and medical journals. Whole states were taking up sides. Congress was trying to decide who to give the $100,000 inventor's award to.

Morton felt betrayed by Jackson and vice versa, Wells felt betrayed by Morton, and Long just felt foolish for having never publicly announced his discovery. It had become a major part of his medical practice but he did not publish till it was too late.

Jackson, Morton and Wells were all destroyed by this mess. Wells became very addicted to his gas from the stress and was always walking around in a daze. He was arrested for throwing acid on several prostitutes. He killed himself in prison by deeply cutting his thigh after inhaling his gas. He died in 1848.

Morton worked himself into a huge frenzy of debt over several decades, sure that he would win the $100,000 eventually. Morton kept hoping for the patent to pay off.  A judge said he could not patent ether because it had been in use for many years, but he could patent the inhalation device.  But nobody paid for the use of the glass globe-they made their own.  Jackson destroyed Morton's dental practice and had Morton's lenders call in their debts. The wealthy family was now destitute.  He died of a stroke in 1868, penniless.

Jackson was found in the Mt. Auburn Cemetery where Morton had been buried. He was looking at the gravestone which announced in marble that Morton was the discoverer of inhalant anesthetic. Jackson went mad on the spot, screaming till he was carted away to an asylum where he stayed till his death in 1880.  He was buried in the same cemetery as Morton.

Meanwhile Dr. Long, after a brief regret of the loss of fame, moved on with his life. He actively helped in the Civil War, using his ether to help with many of the amputations he had to do. He died with family and fortune intact in 1878.

As soon as the Civil War began, Congress dropped their quest to figure out who the rightful discoverer of anesthesia was. Years later it was suggested that a joint prize be awarded to the heirs, but this never happened. So, to this day, different factions claim one of the men to be the “first” and it seems the case will never really be settled. But we can all be very thankful that “someone” did indeed discover anesthesia!


“We Have Conquered Pain: The Discovery of Anesthesia” by Dennis Brindell Fradin c.1996

More about this author: Julie Helms

From Around the Web