when he practiced medicine. Morton did as advised, and
the trial seems to have been successful. This was in July,
1844. It is important to note exact dates, even days, as
we progress with the story. Morton had now added ether
to the list of local anaesthetics, just as Davy had tried nitrous
oxide for general anaesthesia. But Morton did not rest satis-
fied ; he knew the financial advantage that painless dentistry
would be if he could so perfect it. He was a shrewd fellow,
and was not taking any chance of losing the prize, if secret-
006 HARVARD MEDICAL SCHOOL
iveness and planning might help. Much of the future wrangle
and loss of individual glory might have been avoided if Mor-
ton had had an appreciation of the true scientific spirit; cer-
tainly the discovery would have materialized earlier if he and
Jackson had united their efforts.
However, early in 1846, Morton began a series of ether
experiments upon fish, dogs, and other animals. He gave up
his medical studies and placed his office in charge of a col-
league (June, 1846), so that he might devote his whole time
to research. This date is important, as he then gave to his
attorney, Richard H. Dana, Jr., the first intimation of his
purpose. The knowledge was imparted during the drawing
up of articles of partnership between himself and Greenville
G. Hayden, by which arrangement the latter was to conduct
his dental business. Morton went on during that summer
riding his "hobby." He bought ether in small quantities from
one druggist,* and discussed the nature of ether with an-
other ;f gaining from the latter all the information then avail-
able in the trade. He visited an instrument maker§ and
learned a satisfactory method of adminstering sulphuric ether.
He went so far as to prophesy to Gould, "I will have some
way yet by which I will perform my operations without pain."
Gould smiled incredulously and replied, "If he could effect
that, he would do mere than human wisdom had yet done, or
than I expect it would ever do."
Morton listened to Jackson's frequent and protracted expo-
sition of the latter's claim to the invention of the electric
telegraph, yet, although living in his family, no mention was
ever made of the question upon which his own brain and ener-
were centered, and upon which Jackson's well stored
mind would have been of inestimable value. Thus matters
stood up to September 30, 1846, as far as Morton is con-
* Joseph Burnett. t Theodore Mctcalf. § Joseph M. Wightman.
ETHER, 1846 607
cerned; and, as far as the world then knew, such is a fair
statement of the position until then taken by Jackson. This
date marks the parting of the ways which resulted in a con-
troversy upon which the third generation even is divided. All
accounts agree that a very important interview was briefly as
On September 30th, 1846, Morton went to the laboratory of
Jackson and took from a closet an India-rubber gas-bag. In
reply to Jackson's inquiry, Morton said that he had a refrac-
tory patient who needed to have teeth extracted, and it was
his intention to have the patient inhale pure air. By this
means he hoped to produce anaesthesia, by convincing the
patient that some new agent was being employed in the bag.
A conversation ensued upon the effects of the imagination,
as well as on the properties of nitrous oxide in producing in-
sensibility. Jackson told Morton to try sulphuric ether, as
that would produce the insensibility desired. The ether was
to be spattered on a handkerchief and inhaled, and in a mo-
ment or two perfect insensibility would be produced.
"Sulphuric ether," said Morton, "what is that? Is it gas?
Show it to me."
Jackson showed him some ether, illustrated with a dry
folded towel how to inhale it, and assured Morton that it
would not do any harm. "College and school-boys often
amuse themselves by breathing it, and I have tried it my-
self." Morton's pretended ignorance no doubt deceived Jack-
son. He obtained a bottle of ether at Burnett's pharmacy,
went home, and administered to himself, instead of to the
mythical patient he had pictured to Jackson, a strong dose of
the ether vapor.
He says: "1 looked at my watch, and soon lost conscious-
ness. As I recovered, I felt a numbness in my limbs, with a
sensation like nightmare; and 1 would have given the world
for somebody to come and arouse me. I thought for a mo
608 HARVARD MEDICAL SCHOOL
ment I should die on the spot in that state, and the world
would only pity or ridicule my folly. At length I felt a slight
tingling «of the blood in the end of my third finger, and made
an effort to touch it with my thumb but without success ; at
a second effort I touched it, but there seemed to be no sensa-
tion. I attempted to rise from my chair, but fell back. Grad-
ually I regained power over my limbs and full consciousness.
I immediately looked at my watch, and found that I had been
insensible between seven and eight minutes."
Now he was ready for a patient upon whom to< try the
ether. Fortune favored him, for that very night a stout,
healthy man, Eben H. Frost, came to his office for the extrac-
tion of a very painful tooth. He asked that mesmerism be
tried, but on being assured by Morton that he possessed some-
thing better than mesmerism to allay pain in the extraction
of teeth, the patient consented to its use. A folded towel was
saturated with ether and held to the patient's mouth and nose
until primary anaesthesia was produced. A deeply adherent
bicuspid tooth was quickly extracted, and so pleased was
Frost with the success of the operation that he wrote the fol-
lowing certificate :
" This is to certify that I applied to Dr. Morton this evening at eight
o'clock, suffering under the most violent tooth-ache; that Dr. Morton
took out his handkerchief, saturated it with a preparation of his, from
which I breathed about half a minute, and then was lost in sleep. In
an instant more T awoke, and saw my tooth lying on the floor. I did not
experience the slightest pain whatever. I remained twenty minutes in his
office afterward, and felt no unpleasant effects from the operation.
" Eben H. Frost."
" Boston, 42 Prince Street, Sept. 30, 1846.
" We witnessed the above operation, and the statement is in all respects
correct. And, what is more, the man asked where his tooth was, or if it
was out " A. G. Tenney, Journal Office.
" G. G. Hayden, Surgeon Dentist."
The foregoing certificate was duly advertised in the news-
papers with an apparently prearranged accuracy. Morton re-
ETHER, 1846 609
ported to Jackson the success of his experiment of the evening
previous, and asked for a certificate that the vapor might be
inhaled with safety. This Jackson would not give, arguing
that one successful etherization, especially for a mere tooth
extraction, would not be considered by the community satis-
factory proof of safety. A public demonstration before com-
petent witnesses should be given.
Naturally the Massachusetts General Hospital was the one
place in Boston where such a test was possible. Morton hesi-
tated. He recalled Wells's experience, but above all he feared
that the odor of the ether would betray its nature, and he
would thereby loose all financial remuneration from it as a
secret compound. Jackson again came to his assistance, and
assured him that the odor of ether could be effectually dis-
guised by the addition of French Essence.
Thus fortified, Morton called on John C. Warren and made
known to him the result of his operation on Frost. He asked
for an opportunity to demonstrate the value of his discovery,
at the same time he cautiously withheld from the surgeon the
nature of the anaesthetic. Warren was interested, and prom-
ized to give the new remedy a trial on the first suitable surgical
patient presenting himself at the Massachusetts General Hos-
The question whether Morton was the assistant of Jackson,
or the principal himself, in this visit to Warren has been one
of the leading "points" in the ether controversy. Jackson's
contention will be given later. It is interesting to note here
that Warren says,* "Dr. Jackson has also stated to me that
he advised Mr. Morton to apply to me to use it in a surgical
On the morning of October 13, 1846, Gilbert Abbott, aged
twentv years, by occupation a painter, tall, thin, and of a
* " Life of John C. Warren." vol. I ; Biographical Notes, page 386.
610 HARVARD MEDICAL SCHOOL
tubercular heredity, came to the hospital for an operation for
the removal of a "birth-mark" on the neck. Warren was on
duty, and, remembering his promise to Morton, he explained
the situation to Abbott and proposed that he submit himself
to the novel treatment. The class of medical students knew
Warren's comparative ignorance of what was proposed, and
all curiously awaited the trial. On Wednesday, October 14th,
Morton received the following note :
" Dear Sir : I write at the request of Dr. J. C. Warren, to invite you to
be present on Friday morning, at ten o'clock, to administer to a patient,
then to be operated on, the preparation which you have invented to dimin-
ish the sensibility to pain.
" C. F. Heywood,
" House Surgeon to the M. G. H."
The question of a proper inhaler troubled Morton, and
came near defeating the plan. Jackson advised a large glass
flask with a bent tube three feet long. Mr. Wightman sub-
stituted a glass funnel for the tube. Both appliances made no
provision for avoiding the inhalation of the expired air. Gould
sketched an inhaler consisting of a glass globe with two necks,
one of which was stopped with a cork, along the side of which
deep grooves were cut to admit air freely into the globe, and
thus mix with the vapor from an ether sponge placed inside,
while on the other neck of the flask a tube was attached, con-
taining a vale which was opened by the patient's inspiration,
and closed again by his succeeding expiration. Morton went
to N. B. Chamberlain, an instrument maker, at four o'clock
in the morning, and although he was unable fully to complete
the flask in the few hours allowed him, he had the apparatus
fit for use by ten o'clock. So Morton was able to reach the
hospital within fifteen minutes beyond the appointed hour.
He was accompanied by Frost, the hero of the tooth pulling
exhibition of September 30th.
ETHER, 1846 611
The following description of the first public operation under
ether is from an account furnished by an eye-witness :*
" The day arrived ; the time appointed was noted on the dial, when the
patient was led into the operating-room, and Dr. Warren, with a board
of the most eminent surgeons in the State were gathered around the
sufferer. ' All is ready — the stillness oppressive.' It had been announced
' that a test of some preparation was to be made, for which the astonishing
claim had been made, that it would render the person operated upon free
from pain.' Those present were incredulous, and as Dr. Morton had not
arrived at the time appointed, and fifteen minutes had passed, Dr. Warren
said, with significant meaning, ' I presume he is otherwise engaged.' This
was followed with a ' derisive laugh,' and Dr. Warren grasped his knife
and was about to proceed with the operation ; at that moment Dr. Morton
entered a side door, when Dr. Warren turned to him, and in a strong
voice said, ' Well, Sir, your patient is ready.' In a few minutes he was
ready for the surgeon's knife, when Dr. Morton said, ' your patient is
" The operation was for a congenital tumor on the left side of the neck,
extending along the jaw to the maxillary gland and into the mouth,
embracing the margin of the tongue. The operation was successful ; and
when the patient recovered he declared he had suffered no pain. Dr.
Warren then turned to those present and said, ' Gentlemen, this is no
humbug.' ' The conquest of pain had been achieved.' "
The first demonstration was undoubtedly an imperfect
etherization, yet so successful had been the result that Henry
J. Bigelow remarked, as he left the hospital, "I have seen
something to-day which will go around the world." But Bige-
low was a genius. A further test was made on the following
day, in the case of a woman who came as an out-patient, with
a fatty tumor on the right shoulder. George Hayward oper-
ated on her. The task occupied seven minutes, and at no
time did the patient give the slightest sign of sensation. The
next operation under ether, at the Hospital, did not take place
until November 7, 1846.
Warren believed at firstf that the insensibility was due to
* Dr. Washington Ayei, of San Francisco, published in tin- "Occidental
Medical Times," March, 1896.
f Subsequently changed his opinion.
61'2 HARVARD MEDICAL SCHOOL
asphyxia, an opinion somewhat justified by the method df
inhalation employed, as well as by the dark color of the blood
of many patients improperly under ether.
Morton went on experimenting, giving ether for private
operations here and there. He had won the confidence and co-
operation of Henry J. Bigelow, through whose good offices
he was again permitted to appear at the Massachusetts Gen-
eral Hospital on November 7th. At one of the private oper-
ations done by Dix, in the interim, Bigelow made the impor-
tant discovery that the pulse was the true guide as between
safety and danger in the use of ether. A great deal of credit
is due to Bigelow for his persistent efforts to have the sur-
geons at the hospital give the new discovery their endorse-
ment ; and he was himself qualified both by education and per-
sonal experience to give to the world an account of the dis-
covery. This he did November 3, 1846, at a meeting of the
American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Boston.* This
was the first formal, public declaration that a safe and unfail-
ing method of destroying pain had been discovered.
That first account makes good reading to-day, and is a
witness to Bigelow's ability. Then he sent an account of the
discovery to his friend Francis Boott§, a retired Boston phy-
sician, living in London. Boott communicated his informa-
tion to Liston, who introduced ether at once into' the London
hospitals. On December 21, 1846, Liston amputated a thigh,
and did an evulsion of the great toe nail, both "without the
patients being aware of what was going on, so far as regards
pain." Liston's enthusiasm over these performances found
articulate voice: "Hurrah! Rejoice! An American dentist
has used ether — inhalations of it — to destroy sensations in his
* Read before the Boston Society for Medical Improvement, Nov. o,
1846. Published in " Boston Medical and Surgical Journal." Nov. 18, 1846.
§ Francis Boott, A. M., 1814; M. D. Edin. 1824; Fellow Linnaean Soc.
London, and Amr. Acad. Died 1863.
ETHER, 1846 613
operations, and the plan has succeeded in the hands of Hay-
ward, Warren, and others in Boston. In six months no oper-
ation will be performed without this previous preparation.
Rejoice!"' The news quickly spread throughout Europe, and
before the end of January, 1847, tne "great American discov-
ery" was a world-wide topic of discussion. The anaesthetic
agent was first called "letheon," a name decided upon by a
meeting of interested men, Bigelow, Holmes and Morton at
the house of Gould ; the name, however, did not suit Holmes,
who wrote to Morton :
" Boston, Nov. 21, 1846.
"My Dear Sir: Everybody wants to have a hand in the great discovery.
All I will do is to give yon a hint or two as to names, or the name, to
be applied to the state produced, and to the agent.
" The state should, I think, be called anaesthesia. This signifies insensi-
bility, more particularly (as used by Linnaeus and Cullen) to objects of
touch. The adjective will be anaesthetic. Thus we might say, the 'state
of anaesthesia,' or the ' anaesthetic state.' The means employed would
be properly called the ' anti-aesthetic agent.' Perhaps it might be allow-
able to say ' anaesthetic agent ; ' but this admits of question.
" The words anti-neuric , aneuric, neuro-lcptic, ncuro-Iepsia. ncuro-stasis,
seem too anatomical ; whereas the change is a physiological one. I throw
these out for consideration.
" I would have a name pretty soon, and consult some accomplished
scholar, such as President Everett, or Dr. Bigelow, Sr., before fixing upon
the terms which will be repeated by the tongues of every civilized race
of mankind. You could mention these words which I suggest, for their
consideration ; but there may be others more appropriate and agreeable.
" Yours respectfully,
" O. W. Holmes/'
Here might end the history of that discovery, America's
greatest contribution to medical science, equal perhaps to the
contribution of any age and of any country. Pain, and with
it the horror of anticipation, has now vanished; mental shock
and the old traumatic surgery no longer exist; the surgeon
has no need for hurry, for nerve-racking sympathy, for
doubt, or expediency; all is now calm in the operating room;
the patient is motionless, free from sensibility; the surgeon
QU HARVARD MEDICAL SCHOOL
can act with judgment, weigh consequences, invoke aid from
consultants; operations are no longer the last resort, but are
often an early choice, with increasing possibilities of relief
and cure; all modern surgery, one of the glories of our age,
takes its birth from the discovery of surgical anaesthesia. In
this result nothing perhaps exceeds in the extent of importance
the relationship between anaesthesia and asepsis ; without the
former the latter would be largely futile. The two are in-
separably linked, forming the keystone upon which the science
and art of surgery must depend.
The story of ether, like that of most great discoveries, is
one of incredulity, hostility, and controversy. The former
two sentiments have long since passed away; the last is wont
to arise whenever the subject of the discoverer of etherization
is broached. In the remaining pages of this chapter let us re-
view the conclusions reached by different tribunals contem-
porary with the events.
The key to the controversy unquestionably lay in the desire
of Morton to turn the discovery into money. On the 29th of
October, 1846, he applied for a patent. Jackson, as a mem-
ber of the Massachusetts Medical Society, refused at first to
join in such a proceeding, on the ground that it was not good
ethics. He preferred to charge Morton a fee of five hundred
dollars for professional advice, and then Morton was to do
as he pleased. As an afterthought, or, as he says,* "to estab-
lish legally my rights as the author of the discovery, and to
enable me to give my rights to others that they might make
use of my method," Jackson agreed to join Morton in the
application for a patent. This patent was issued November 12,
and Jackson agreed to assign all his interest in the invention
or discovery in consideration of a ten per cent income from
*"A Manual of Etherization, etc.," by Charles T. Jackson, M. D.,
F. G. S. F.. page 53.
ETHER. 1846 615
the proceeds on all sales of licenses. Later he demanded
twenty-five per cent. Both demands were refused, and there-
upon followed the controversy. Here is a letter from Mor-
" 19 Tremont St., Boston, Dec. 14, 1846."
" To the President and Trustees of the Massachusetts General
" Gentlemen, — Most, if not all of you, may be aware that I have, both
privately and publicly, declared that it is not my intention or desire to
receive from benevolent infirmaries, nor from persons in destitute circum-
stances, any compensation for the employment of the new discovery
whereby pain may be prevented, or alleviated, in surgical operations.
Long convinced of the excellence of the charitable establishment over
which you preside, and of its great and increasing importance in the service
of humanity, I beg leave to respectfully inform you that I shall be happy
to present to the Massachusetts General Hospital, if it be agreeable for
the President and Trustees to accept the same, the fullest right, under the
letters patent granted to me by the Government of the United States,
to use the discovery above mentioned for the benefit of indigent patients,
the sick and suffering poor, and other persons at the institution.
" With great respect, I am, gentlemen,
" Your most obedient servant,
" W. T. G. Morton."
For the benefit of the curious I append a list of more than
sixty addresses, reports, medical- journal and newspaper ar-
ticles. I can assure such persons that they will rise from
such studies with feelings of utter disappointment, if not
actual chagrin. Sundry most respectable persons are dragged
into the witness-box and made to contradict each other. The
King of Prussia and the French Academy of Sciences became
involved in the controversy ; the Congress of the United States
was petitioned, and the Supreme Court invoked ; the American
Medical Association became a partisan, and the Massachusetts
General Hospital Trustees furnished a testimonial. Finally,
after twenty-five years, a monument was dedicated, almost
within sight of the scene of the discovery, to commemorate
616 HARVARD MEDICAL SCHOOL
the event, yet it fails to name the discoverer.* Since 1846
two generations have come. Nearly all those who were active
participants in the events of the ether discovery and its con-
troversy are now dead. The following physicians, still living
(1905), were present at the first surgical operation under
anesthesia, October 16, 1846, Massachusetts General Hos-
pital : Robert Thompson Davis, M. D., '47, Fall River, Mass. ;
Tappan Eustis Francis, A. B., '44, M. D., '47, Brookline,
Mass. ; Benjamin Shurtleff, M. D., '48, Napa, Cal. ; Isaac
Francis Galloupe, M. D., '49, Lynn, Mass.
The semi-centennial of the birth of anaesthesia came in our
day.§ Nine years ago the Bigelow amphitheatref at the Mas-
sachusetts General Hospital was crowded as was Warren's
operating room in 1846. This time, however, the benches
formerly filled by those ancient students were crowded by
representatives of the whole scientific world. By those men
Morton's name alone was rehearsed. We have lived to see
fulfilled the prophetic words of the venerable Jacob Bigelow,
"The suffering and now exempted world have not forgotten
the poor dentist who, amid poverty, privation, and discour-
agement, matured and established the most beneficial dis-
covery which has blessed humanity since the primeval days of
Briefly, then, the steps leading up to this tardy verdict are
as follows : The fourteen years' patent secured by Morton
was soon found to be worthless. Jackson then appeared in a
new role. He repudiated the contract and claimed the dis-
covery as his own. His first contention was priority, and he
used these words :%
* Said Oliver Wendell Holmes : " Inscribe it to Either."
§ Semi-centennial of Anaesthesia, Massachusetts General Hospital, Bos-
Ion, Oct. 16, 1896.
t Now the " Zander room.''
X " A Manual of Etherization, etc.," By Chas. T. Jackson, M. D.,
F. G. S. F., 1861. Part of a letter sent to Von Haemboldt in 1851.
* _>w ^/// Qrulxuc rJje-mon ftivfroti^J
HP . /r)c /l 'a Mr.
0/ r 0) ucqical v^/inac •The ur^
//V , /J cftntfw J J/) ,
%jton OcUer 7&W4G.
r /t ~>
< I ne<jy\pnouc" of ifotwCqmpa/nifis rcciucffcd
fytk/}. ( J r:
- "^^^ : - -r>i-^— ■^"^r-^r
Reduced facsimile of invitation to the Fiftieth Anniversary of the
First Public Demonstration of Surgical Anesthesia
at the Massachusetts General Hospital.
ETHER, 1846 617
"The circumstances were as follows: In the winter of 1841-2 I was
employed in giving a few lectures before the Mechanics' Charitable Asso-
ciation in Boston, and in my last lecture, which I think was in the month
of February, I had occasion to show a number of experiments in illus-
tration of the theory of volcanic eruptions, and for these experiments I
prepared a large quantity of chlorine gas, collecting it in gallon glass
jars over boiling water. Just as one of these large jars was filled with
pure chlorine it overturned and broke, and, in my endeavors to save the
vessel, I accidentally got my lungs full of chlorine gas, which nearly suffo-
cated me, so that my life was in imminent danger. I immediately had
ether and ammonia brought, and alternately inhaled them with great
' The next morning my throat was severely inflamed, and very painful,
and I perceived a distinct flavor of chlorine in my breath and my lungs