Heroes of Progress in America - Charles Morris

Horace Wells
and the Discoverers of Anesthesia

On the 11th of December, 1844, one of the most important experiments in the history of the world was performed in the office of Dr. Horace Wells, a dentist of Hartford, Connecticut. Dr. Wells, as a patient, was trying a discovery of his own upon himself. His friend, Dr. Riggs, was the experimenter. Dr. Wells inhaled a quantity of nitrous oxide gas, went to sleep under its effect, and had a large, sound tooth drawn out without pain.

It was a wonderful, phenomenal operation. Never before in the history of the world had a surgical operation been performed without pain. Untold thousands of times in previous years legs and arms had been cut off, cancers cut out, and terrible operations of other kinds taken place, and in all cases the patient had to lie wide awake, often suffering frightful agony. Various things had been tried to reduce sensation, but as a rule they had done more harm than good, and surgeons were afraid to use them. To perform such an operation now without making the patient unconscious would be thought shameful and barbarous, and it seems strange to us that the first time it was successfully done was only sixty years ago. About the same time two other American scientists produced anesthesia by other means, so that the great discovery seemed to come at once in several fields. We shall tell the story of these other two when we have told that of Dr. Wells.

Horace Wells was born in Hartford, Vermont, January 21, 1815. His parents were well-to-do farmers. He was a handsome, active, intelligent boy, and he was given a good education. His father dying before his school life ended, he completed his education by aid of money earned by teaching in district and writing schools. As he grew up towards manhood he had serious thoughts of studying for the ministry, but chose the profession of dentistry instead, and at the age of nineteen went to Boston to study for it.

Not much can be said for the dentistry of that period. It was a relic of barbarism, with very little of art or skill in its practice. A movement to improve it had but recently begun. The first College of Dental Surgery in this country was founded in Baltimore in 1840, and young Wells did not find any very skillful professors in Boston in 1834. But he was quick and intelligent, made rapid progress in his profession, invented many instruments for himself, and was not long in practice before he was looked upon as one of the most expert of the dentists of Boston.

Among his inventions was a solder to fasten artificial teeth upon the plate, and to manufacture and use this he went into partnership with Dr. William Morton. Dr. Charles T. Jackson, a noted chemist of Boston, gave them a certificate of the purity and value of the solder, which was much superior to the imperfect substance then in use. Drs. Morton and Jackson were the other two discoverers of anesthesia mentioned, and it is worthy of mention that these three benefactors of mankind came thus at one time into close association.

The firm of Wells & Morton did not succeed very well, and they soon separated, Morton staying in Boston, and Wells opening an office in Hartford, Connecticut. While here he gave much time to the thought that there might be some means of taking out teeth without pain. He was a student of chemistry, and from his knowledge of nitrous oxide gas thus learned he decided to try this substance. He studied its effect upon animals, and when satisfied that it would put them to sleep without danger, he decided to make an experiment upon a man—choosing himself as the man. It was this that led to the notable experiment we have described, in which his friend, Dr. Riggs, drew out one of his teeth with scarcely a trace of pain.

The most beneficial of discoveries had been made. He had given to mankind one of the greatest of blessings. As the poet and physician, Oliver Wendell Holmes, stated it, "The deepest furrow in the knotted brow of agony has been smoothed forever." But, like nearly all new discoveries, the world was slow to accept it. The innovation was too great and sudden. Some chemists and doctors wrote and spoke against it, and there were ministers who went so far as to denounce it on the ground that it was an impious meddling with the ways of the Creator, who had sent pain to the earth as a discipline and benefit to mankind. But it was soon in use by the dentists of Hartford, and in no great time made its way to all civilized lands.

Dr. Wells was a handsome and attractive man, thoughtful in face, cheerful and cordial in manner, his face lighting up in conversation in a bright, pleasant fashion. He was by nature sensitive, and did not make many new acquaintances, confining himself chiefly to the society of his special friends. Shortly after his discovery failing health obliged him to go to Europe for rest and recreation. Here he kept up his studies in colleges and hospitals. To pay his expenses abroad he imported and sold pictures, and also lectured on birds, whose habits he had studied lovingly in his early years.

After returning from Europe, he went to New York for the purpose of introducing anesthetics in the hospitals there. Morton and Jackson had made known their discoveries by that time, and he tried them all, finally becoming convinced that chloroform, Dr. Jackson's discovery, was a better anesthetic than his own. He began experimenting with it upon himself, not knowing its dangerous character, and continued these experiments till his mind was ruined by the perilous drug. He had not been a month in New York before, in an attack of insanity due to his unwise use of chloroform, he took his own life. He was just past his thirty-third year, dying January 24, 1848, a little more than three years after the date of his famous discovery.

On September 30, 1846, Dr. William T. G. Morton, of Boston, performed an experiment similar to that of Dr. Wells nearly two years before. The substance used by him was sulphuric ether. He had convinced himself of its safety by trying its effect upon himself, and now administered it to a patient, from whose jaws he drew a large, double-pronged tooth. To his delight, the patient felt no pain, remaining unconscious during the operation. Soon after he used it upon a patient at the Massachusetts Hospital. A tumor was removed from the jaw, a very painful operation in a state of consciousness, but the patient felt no pain. A second anesthetic of unmeasured value had been given to mankind.

Dr. Morton was born in Charlton, Massachusetts, August 9, 1819. He entered the new dental college in Baltimore in 1840, studied there and in Boston, and after graduating was for a time in partnership with his friend, Dr. Wells. The two men were alike in one thing: they were both active in improving the instruments of their profession, and both eager to discover some means of removing teeth without pain. It may well be that they had talked of the matter together when in partnership, and even begun their studies and experiments then. At any rate, we find Dr. Morton soon afterwards busy in seeking to discover some pain-killing substance. He tried stimulants, giving the patient liquor till he was intoxicated. He tried opium. He experimented with magnetism. All were of no avail.

One cause of his difficulty was that he knew very little about medicines or chemistry, and to overcome this he began to attend lectures in the Medical College at Boston. It was here he learned that small quantities of sulphuric ether could be breathed in without injury, and that it tended to produce unconsciousness. This led him to the successful experiment we have mentioned. Sulphuric ether was added to the list of pain-dispelling substances.

Dr. Morton's discovery was no sooner made known than it began to be used widely in private institutions and by the Government, without regard to his rights. He had patented it in the United States and England under the name of "Etheon," giving free right to its use in charitable institutions, but it was pirated on all sides without regard to his patent, and he found it impossible to obtain redress. There was a bitter dispute between him and Dr. Jackson, who claimed to have discovered before him that ether was an anesthetic. When the French Academy of Sciences appointed a committee to investigate the merits of the two claimants, and adjudged a prize of twenty-five hundred francs to each, to Dr. Jackson as "the discoverer of etherization," and to Dr. Morton "for the application of this discovery to scientific operations," Morton refused to receive his award. Some years later, in 1852, the Monyton gold medal prize in medicine and surgery was awarded to him.

He continued to maintain his claim for years, appealing to Congress for his rights under his patent, though the struggle became so ruinous to his business that even his home was attached by the sheriff. A committee of physicians appointed by Congress reported that the merit of the discovery was his, and Congress subsequently made a like acknowledgment, but the appropriation voted upon for him was lost. In 1858 he won a lawsuit before the United States Court for an infringement upon his patent. But all this brought him in no money, the royalties were never paid, and the contest ruined him. He finally became a farmer, engaged in importing and raising fine cattle, and died July 15, 1868.

Coming now to the third discoverer of anesthesia, Dr. Charles Thomas Jackson, we may say that he was born in Plymouth, Massachusetts, June 21, 1805, and became a noted chemist and geologist. He studied medicine at Harvard, graduating at twenty-four, but did not gain any special distinction as a doctor, his time and attention being given to mineralogy, geology, and chemistry, in which he became famous. He was geologist in succession for Maine, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire, taking an active part in studying the geological and mineral conditions of those States, as also of the wilderness of northwest New York. He had, shortly after graduating, spent several years studying in Paris, and investigating the geological conditions of several parts of Europe. His return was made on the ship "Sully," and among his fellow passengers was Professor S. F. B. Morse. It was Dr. Jackson who told him of the electrical experiments he had seen in Paris, and thus put in Morse's mind the idea which afterwards led to the invention of the electric telegraph.

It was not until after Drs. Wells and Morton had made public their discoveries that Jackson claimed to have made the discovery of anesthetics many years before. He said that in the year 1834 he had found that chloroform dissolved in alcohol and put into an aching tooth would deaden the pain. He also studied other substances, especially sulphuric ether. Once in his experiments he breathed by accident chlorine gas into his lungs. This gave him so much pain that he inhaled the vapor of ether, hoping for relief. The relief was so quick and great that he made up his mind that a surgical operation might be performed without pain under the influence of ether. This was about the year 1846, the year of Morton's discovery. Dr. Jackson did not try ether on others, and he did not make his discovery about chloroform known till this time. But his scientific standing was so high that many took his word for it. Most of the physicians of Boston believed in his claim, and great honor was given him abroad, orders and decorations coming to him from the governments of France, Sweden, Prussia, Turkey, and Sardinia. The Academy of Sciences of France, as above stated, awarded him a prize of twenty-five hundred francs for his discovery.

Dr. Jackson had won a wide reputation as a geologist and mineralogist, and had become very prominent as a chemist, making important practical studies upon the cotton and tobacco plants and other American products. His bitter contest with Dr. Morton, however, over what he looked upon as the most important of his discoveries, was a severe strain upon him, and this, combined with his devotion to difficult studies and "experiments, may have been the cause of the mental failure which came upon him in his later years. The last seven years of his life were passed in an asylum for the insane. He died August 29, 1880.

The controversy which arose between the three discoverers of anesthesia made life unhappy for all of them. It was mainly due to the combative disposition of Dr. Morton, and his determination to assert his rights. Of them all, so far as public announcement of their discoveries was made, Dr. Wells stood first, and to him belongs the honor of first making known to the world a means of deadening pain in surgical operations. But this is a matter of minor importance, and the echoes of the hot controversy over their respective claims has long since died away.

The discoveries came so close together in time that they may be looked upon as a threefold one, Dr. Wells being given the credit of discovering the pain-deadening powers of nitrous oxide, Dr. Jackson of those of chloroform, and Drs. Morton and Jackson simultaneously of those of sulphuric ether. This, however, we may say, that all these discoverers were Americans, natives of New England, and that to our country is due, among its many valuable discoveries, the supreme one of saving man from the agonies of mortal pain.