History Who Really Discovered Anesthesia Part 2

About the controversy in history over who discovered anesthesia, an overview of Charles Jackson and Horace Wells's claims.




HORACE WELLS (1815-1848)

A tall, handsome New Englander, Horace Wells studied dentistry and opened his first practice in Hartford, Conn., in 1836, at the age of 21. Wells gained a solid reputation as a dentist and prospered, but he was disturbed by the pain he inflicted, especially during extractions.

In December of 1844, Wells attended a traveling show at which nitrous oxide demonstrations were performed. Wells noticed that a man who struck his shins while under the influence of the gas felt nothing. Wells invited the laughing-gas showman, Gardner Colton, to meet him at his office the next day. During this visit Wells asked Colton to administer nitrous oxide to him while another dentist extracted one of Wells's teeth. The extraction was painless. Thereafter, Wells learned how to manufacture and administer this gas, and he used it in a number of extractions. He did not patent the gas because he believed it should "be as free as the air we breathe."

With the assistance of his former dental partner, William Morton, Wells demonstrated his discovery at Massachusetts General Hospital in January, 1845. Wells began his extraction before the gas had taken effect, however, and the patient screamed. The attending medical observers jeered Wells, and he was ridiculed as a charlatan in the Boston press.

In December of 1846, Wells printed the results of his studies in anesthesia, but his ostracism by the Boston medical profession had left him an emotionally crippled man. He continued to experiment--on himself--with a variety of gases, including nitrous oxide, ether, and chloroform. These vapor inhalations strongly affected him emotionally, and he deteriorated mentally. In New York City in 1848, he sniffed chloroform, went berserk, and threw acid on the clothes of a prostitute. Jailed for this offense, Wells committed suicide by slashing an artery in his leg.


An eccentric genius, Massachusetts-born Charles Jackson's career embraced both medicine and geology, and he was not only a renowned medical chemist but also a mineralogist.

A flamboyant yet brilliant scientist, Jackson had observed as early as 1834 that chloroform deadened nerves, and in 1837 he had studied the effects of nitrous oxide. In 1842, according to his account, he rendered himself unconscious for 15 minutes by inhaling ether and so realized the anesthetic properties of that gas. On Sept. 30, 1846, Jackson instructed William Morton to use ether in tooth extractions and thus invented anesthesia.

In the decades that followed, Jackson was bitterly embroiled in the unresolved controversy over who had discovered anesthesia. He continued to work as a chemist and geologist until 1873, when he became violently insane, possibly due to his personal experimentation with various gases, and was admitted to an asylum. There he died seven years later.

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