History Who Really Discovered Anesthesia Part 4

About the controversy in history over who discovered anesthesia, an overview of the various claims.




Never before or since has a medical discovery generated such heated debate and bitterness. By 1849 the controversy over who discovered anesthesia had become such a public issue that the U.S. Congress was called on to resolve the matter. However, even Congress became dead-locked over the issue. The controversy centers on the definition of discovery. Is discovery of a medical process simply the mental conceptualization of the process, or does it also require a practical application of the process? And does a medical discoverer have to publicize and expose his invention to the medical profession and the world in order to be awarded credit?


Long supporters point to one simple fact when they back his claim that he was the discoverer of anesthesia. That fact is that on Mar. 30, 1842--before any other claimant--he performed the first surgical operation utilizing anesthesia--in this case, sulfuric ether.


Wells advocates, along with those of Jackson and Morton, hold that a discovery is not a discovery if it is not presented to the world. Not until three years after Morton's demonstration in Boston, and after ether had been accepted into general practice, did Long reveal that he had discovered anesthesia. If Long had not heard about the anesthesia debate in Congress in 1849, Wells supporters contend, he never would have published his claims, and knowledge of his "ether frolic" experiments would have died with him.

Wells partisans say that Wells conducted the first operations using anesthesia which led to the general acceptance and use of anesthesia. Wells's work gave medical exposure to anesthesia even if his January, 1845, demonstration was a failure. In fact, Morton's demonstrations were merely a continuation of Wells's experiments and a vindication of his concepts. Wells discovered and presented anesthesia to the world, while Morton gave the first practical demonstration of Wells's work.


The Jackson partisans assert that Jackson, with ether, discovered anesthesia, and that Morton was merely Jackson's assistant in publicly demonstrating the substance.


Morton partisans deny that Morton was carrying on the work of either Wells or Jackson, and claim instead that he did his own independent research. Among the many specialists he interviewed was Jackson, who mentioned that ether had been used as a localized painkiller. Morton took these ideas and suggestions from various sources and synthesized them, thus discovering and publicly demonstrating anesthesia to the world.

Morton supporters have vented their full wrath on Jackson. They assert that he was merely a glory-seeker who tried to take credit for the accomplishments of everyone he came into contact with. They point out that, before the anesthesia controversy, Jackson contended that he had invented the telegraph because he had once proposed the concept during a discussion of electricity with Samuel Morse. In actuality, Jackson was just a chemist who gave Morton technical advice. Morton supporters deny the claim that he was Jackson's assistant by pointing to the fact that Jackson advised against and refused to be associated with Morton's Massachusetts General demonstration because it was, in Jackson's words, "too dangerous." Only after Morton had been acknowledged as anesthesia's discoverer did the other claimants publish their results and their challenges. Morton advocates maintain that Morton conceptualized, implemented, demonstrated, and presented anesthesia to the world.

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