Scientist of the Day - Ether Dome
On October 16, 1846, the first successful public demonstration of surgical anesthesia took place in the operating theater of Massachusetts General Hospital. As a skeptical audience of physicians and medical students watched from the sidelines, Dr. John Collins Warren removed a tumor from the neck of Boston housepainter Edward Gilbert Abbott. Throughout the procedure, Abbott inhaled vapors from a sponge soaked in sulfuric ether, which were administered by a local dentist named William Morton. Under the influence of Morton’s gas, Abbott sat motionless as Warren made a three-inch long incision beneath his lower jaw.
Abbott’s lack of reaction stood in stark contrast to another surgical demonstration conducted in the same amphitheater the previous year by Morton’s former business partner, Horace Wells. Wells had sought to demonstrate the painkilling properties of nitrous oxide, but the Boston crowd dismissed his claims when his patient emitted an audible groan in the middle of a tooth extraction. Other than some occasional muttering, however, Abbott barely stirred until his operation’s conclusion. At that point, Warren turned to the crowd. “Gentlemen,” he exclaimed, “this is no humbug.” Later that evening, Warren also wrote a brief journal entry describing this “interesting operation” (second image)
Everyone in the operating theater that October morning recognized the significance of what had just occurred. For centuries, surgery had been a messy, violent business carried out with the utmost speed. Suddenly, thanks to Morton’s new treatment, it became possible to envision a world where surgeons could operate more methodically and without inflicting pain on their patients.
Abbott’s surgery was not the first use of anesthesia—a term coined later by physician and poet Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. Despite his apparent failure in Boston, Horace Wells had previously carried out numerous operations with nitrous oxide. In addition, it later became known that a physician in Georgia named Crawford Long had conducted several surgeries using ether in 1842, four years before Morton’s demonstration. Such details did not prevent Morton from asserting that he deserved sole credit for the invention of anesthesia.
Regardless of these priority disputes, October 16, 1846 marked the moment when the broader medical community began to embrace anesthesia as a viable surgical technique. October 16 soon became known as “Ether Day,” and the operating theater at Massachusetts General, which remained in active use until 1867, was nicknamed the “Ether Dome” (third image).