Ancient history

Anesthesia:in 1844, the operation of the first chance

Last updated:2022-07-25

Horace Wells' botched surgery is re-enacted in a vintage engraving • ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

Pain and illness have accompanied man throughout his history, but it was not until the middle of the 19 th century that the fight against pain is beginning to bear fruit.

It all begins at the end of December 1844, when Gardner Colton, a failed medical student posing as a professor, arrives in Hartford, a small town located between Boston and New York. Colton organizes a conference where he wants to cause a sensation by showing the effects of a gas, nitrous oxide, known more colloquially as laughing gas.

An injured person who does not feel pain

Indeed, participants who inhale this gas have fits of laughter and move very slowly. Among the audience is Horace Wells, a well-known local dentist. He notices that one of the participants testing the gas hurt his leg when he fell, but doesn't seem to feel any pain. Wells then had a stroke of genius and thought he had found the solution to a problem that all dentists face:extracting teeth without pain.

The next day, Wells convinces Colton to administer the gas, while one of his colleagues pulls out a wisdom tooth that has been bothering him for some time. As he suspected, he felt nothing during the procedure. We are on December 11, 1844, a decisive date for the annals of science. After becoming familiar with the use of nitrous oxide, Wells successfully performed several painless extractions on various patients.

In January 1845, triumphant, he reported his progress to a colleague and former Boston apprentice, William Morton. He also consulted the city's most prestigious chemist, Charles Thomas Jackson, who for his part considered the method extremely dangerous.

First stroke of the scalpel

Wells and Morton then go to Harvard Medical School. Doctor John Warren organizes a demonstration there in the amphitheater of Massachusetts General Hospital, a university center of which he is the chief surgeon. Wells is ready to demonstrate the effects of nitrous oxide to the medical community, but the procedure goes very poorly. The patient, a young man suffering from cavities, starts screaming in pain at the first stroke of the scalpel, the gas having certainly been badly administered. The students present start booing Wells calling him a charlatan.

Morton, meanwhile, continued his experiments in anesthesia, but using another gas:ether. On September 30, 1846, after a few unsuccessful attempts, he used sulfuric ether to painlessly extract a molar from Eben Frost, a Boston musician.

The success of the surgery carried out by William Morton is now prompting doctors to use ether, rather than nitrous oxide, to put patients to sleep.

Two weeks later, Doctor Warren agrees that Morton tests the new anesthetic in his hospital. The setting is the same as for the Wells fiasco:the hospital amphitheater. When Morton arrives, the patient to be operated on is already strapped in, and the attendees are stamping their feet with impatience. This is Gilbert Abbott, a 17-year-old young man with a tumor in his neck. The dentist had him inhale the ether, and after a few minutes Abbott fell asleep. The surgeon carries out the operation successfully and, at the end, turns to the other doctors to solemnly announce to them:“Gentlemen, this is not quackery. »

It is October 16, 1846, the day since known as the invention of anesthesia, eclipsing the previous success of Horace Wells. The latter, affected by the numerous experiments on gases that he continued to administer, anesthetized with chloroform on January 24, 1848, before committing suicide by cutting an artery.

Around 1800
The English chemist Humphry Davy perceived the anesthetic potential of nitrous oxide but made no progress in his experiments.
Horace Wells observes the anesthetic effects of nitrous oxide and painlessly extracts molars from several patients.
Following the failure of Wells during a demonstration at Harvard faculty, William Morton continues his research, but with ether.
In the first anesthetic surgery in history, Morton successfully extracts a jawbone tumor from a sleeping patient.