Why we should remember the pioneering use of ether
Inventor WTG Morton's pioneering use of ether as an an inhalation anaesthetic paved the way for the proliferation of pain-free operations the world over, says Joanna Bourke
When was anaesthetic invented and first used?
On 30 September 1846, 175 years ago, a dentist called WTG Morton made a huge leap forward in the quest for pain-free operations, claiming to have used ether as an anaesthetic for the very first time. Just over two weeks later, in the Massachusetts General Hospital, Morton successfully anaesthetised a young man while surgeon John Collins Warren removed a facial tumour. This was the first effective public demonstration of using ether.
What were operations like before the invention of anaesthetic?
Until Morton’s pioneering work, the pain of surgical operations was so agonising that physicians and patients avoided resorting to the knife unless the patient’s life was threatened. Of course, alternative forms of pain relief had long been available. These included administering salicylate (willow bark), alcohol, opium and – from 1805 – morphine. Physicians also blunted pain by freezing limbs, compressing nerves, inducing significant blood loss (exsanguination) and hypnotising patients.
Using ether in operations was scandalous: pain was supposed to aid healing and the sufferers’ souls
The properties of ether were also well-known before Morton’s operations. In 1800, the distinguished chemist Humphry Davy could be heard speculating that nitrous oxide “appears capable of destroying physical pain”, so it “may probably be used with advantage during surgical operations”. However, proposals that ether could be used in surgical operations were scandalous: pain was believed to be beneficial for healing, not to mention the sufferers’ souls.
But this all changed in 1846. This was to be a before and after moment in the history of human and non-human animal suffering. Morton insisted on taking all the credit, rejecting the claims of other discoverers of the drug, including Charles Jackson and Horace Wells. Within six months of Morton’s public demonstration, ether was being used worldwide to blunt the pain of surgery, tooth extraction and childbirth.
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When was chloroform first used as anaesthetic?
A few months later – in 1847 – James Young Simpson was able to demonstrate the efficacy of another anaesthetic agent, chloroform, in inducing anaesthesia. These advances resulted in a significant increase in the number of surgical procedures that doctors were able to perform and patients willing to submit to.
The legacy of WTG Morton
And, for all his disputes over who really discovered ether, there’s no denying Morton’s vital contribution. The epitaph on his grave reads: “Inventor and revealer of inhalation anaesthesia: before whom, in all time, surgery was agony; by whom pain in surgery was averted and annulled; since whom, science has control of pain.”
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Joanna Bourke is professor of history at Birkbeck, and author of The Story of Pain (OUP, 2014)
This article first appeared in the September 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine