History Who Really Discovered Anesthesia Part 3

About the controversy in history over who discovered anesthesia, an overview of William Morton's claim.

HISTORICAL CONTROVERSIES

WHO REALLY DISCOVERED ANESTHESIA?

THE CONTENDERS AND THEIR STORIES

WILLIAM MORTON (1819-1868)

The son of a New England farmer, William Morton first worked as a clerk and salesman, but his ambitious nature led him to study, and eventually practice, dentistry. In 1842 he became the partner of Horace Wells, who later introduced him to his experiments with nitrous oxide. During 1844 Morton lived in Boston while he studied with Dr. Charles Jackson, who taught him about the chemical properties of gases.

By 1845 Morton had invented an easily manufactured denture, which he planned to market. However, this denture required the removal of all of the patient's teeth, usually an extremely painful process. This problem encouraged Morton to investigate anesthesia. He studied Wells's work with nitrous oxide and observed Wells's failure at Massachusetts General in 1845. Finally, Morton consulted Charles Jackson about the gases available for experimentation. According to Morton, Jackson suggested he try sulfuric ether, which was known to have a localized painkilling effect.

On Sept. 30, 1846, a patient named Eben Frost came to Morton's office. Terrified at the thought of pain, Frost agreed to try Morton's painkiller invention. The subsequent extraction, which utilized sulfuric ether, was painless. A few weeks later Morton was approached by Boston surgeon Henry Bigelow, who had heard of Morton's discovery and wanted to test it in a surgical theater.

On Oct. 16, 1846, Morton used ether at Massachusetts General. The patient was operated on for a vascular tumor while painlessly unconscious, and Morton was promptly proclaimed the inventor of anesthesia by the Boston medical profession. For the next 20 years Morton invested his time and money acquiring and defending patents. At first he called the ether gas "Morton's letheon" and refused to reveal what it was. After it was found to be simple ether, his patents were impossible to defend, and even the U.S. Army ignored them. In fact, with the growing controversy over who discovered anesthesia, the government annulled his patent in 1862 until the matter could be settled--which it never was. Morton's dreams of wealth from his discovery never materialized; he died destitute in New York City of a stroke.

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