The Dawn of Modern Anesthesia

How a 19th-century recreational drug became a medical breakthrough
William T.G. Morton administers ether to a patient. (Thomas Jefferson University)

In 1844, a Connecticut dentist named Horace Wells came to Harvard to share an astonishing discovery: If a person inhales the right quantity of the chemical nitrous oxide, the result is that they will feel no pain during medical or surgical procedures. It was hard to believe—a game-changing discovery that could instantly and permanently alter the practice of surgery.

And it was, as made evident to the elite Harvard University, a total fraud.

After all, when Wells proudly gave a demonstration of it in front of an eager class of Harvard Medical School students and faculty, the poor boy he selected as his patient continuously screamed out in wretched pain whenever Wells tried to extract his rotten tooth. They called Wells a swindler and said his discovery was a humbug. Wells was crushed, and his career never recovered.

But as it turned out, Wells was not a fraud. It was an “incident of history gone awry.” The young man with the rotten tooth would later admit that he actually felt no pain and didn’t even know the extraction had happened until he saw the bloody tooth in the dentist’s hands. But as no one at the time knew, his screaming was simply one of the most common side effects of inhaling nitrous oxide gas. For reasons that were unknown, individuals who had recently inhaled nitrous oxide were known to scream, groan, or show agitated behavior—despite the fact that they were feeling absolutely no pain.

Unfortunately for Wells, he was not aware of this side effect, and neither was his audience at Harvard. So it happened that a medical breakthrough was showcased at one of the country’s leading medical schools, and no one even knew it.

And even stranger, this wasn’t the first time.

The pain-erasing effects of nitrous oxide were discovered almost a half-century earlier by a chemist named Humphrey Davy, who began his experiments with the chemical at England’s Pneumatic Institution. However, these experiments were largely performed on himself and sometimes his friends. He became so fixated on the high he felt when inhaling the gas—addicted, some would later say—that he risked his life more than once in his attempts to inhale larger and larger quantities, and even had a colleague built him a portable gas chamber so he could have access to the gas wherever and whenever he wanted.

Although Davy was clearly very impressed with nitrous oxide’s ability to seemingly stop the body from feeling pain, it seems that he never thought to promote it as an anesthetic for surgery. Instead, he promoted it as a cure for hangovers, and proceeded to perform detailed experiments—on himself, of course—to see just how many bottles of wine he could drink in a night and still have the effects “erased.”

But Davy was not alone in missing the enormous potential of nitrous oxide, despite frequent interaction with it. In the early 1830s, sulfuric ether and nitrous oxide were both used as recreational drugs. In America, the fashionable and the young found themselves at “laughing gas parties” or “ether frolics,” a popular traveling amusement.

In the 1830s and 1840s, it was not uncommon for a showman claiming to be a “professor of chemistry” to set up show in towns, villages, and cities throughout the United States with the express intent of showcasing these amazing gases and their “exhilarating features.” Of course, the most crowd-pleasing moments of the night were when the “professor” invited members of the audience to the stage to inhale the gases themselves. The sudden loss of equilibrium and inhibition would delight and shock the roaring crowds.

Presented by

Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz

Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz is a writer based in Austin, Texas. She is the author of Dr. Mutter's Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine.

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