Hinckley, Robert (American, 1853-1941)

First Operation Under Ether

Reference Type:
Ether was used throughout the history of medicine for various purposes, including the treatment of scurvy and inflammation of the lungs. The first successful public display of anesthesia was held at the Massachusetts General Hospital in October of 1846 by dentist William Thomas Green Morton (the surgical amphitheater in which it was performed is now called the Ether Dome). Morton is seen to the left of the patient holding a specially designed container of ether. The surgeon, John Collins Warren, a Professor of Surgery at Harvard Medical School, removes a tumor of the jaw from patient Gilbert Abbott. Another man holds the patient’s head and a fourth checks his pulse. The audience is amazed, leaning forward with intense interest—on the left, one stands on his chair for a better view. At the end of the procedure Warren said to the audience, “Gentlemen, this is no humbug.” He later reported that the patient had said his only sensation was “that he had felt as if his neck had been scratched.” The artist researched this painting for a number of years, and was criticized for inaccuracy as to who was present at the event. This frequently happened with historic paintings—well-known people who were not there are included and unknown people who were present are left out. One of the physicians definitely present was Oliver Wendell Holmes (father of the Supreme Court Justice), who suggested the use of the word “anesthesia” (from the Greek anaisthesis, meaning insensibility or loss of sensation) to describe the process. Whatever it was called, Holmes said, its name “would be repeated by the tongues of every civilized race of mankind.” Ether as anesthesia was actually discovered by a Georgia physician named Crawford Long, who removed a tumor from a young man’s neck in March of 1842. He performed subsequent procedures as well, but did not publish his findings since he wanted to be certain they were accurate. Some of his neighbors thought he was using witchcraft, and others felt that pain was God’s way of cleansing the soul, therefore he was going against the natural order. When he read about Morton’s success, he began to write down his own achievements and collect affidavits from former patients, presenting his work to the Medical College of Georgia in 1849. Two others also claimed to have discovered ether as anesthesia, hoping for the renown and wealth it would bring. One, Horace Wells, eventually committed suicide. Morton was overwhelmed with lawsuits and died in poverty. Long, who does not seem to have been in it for profit but for the ease it gave patients, did not live to see his own recognition as the first to use ether successfully in a surgical procedure. Notes by Mariann Smith
Art of Medicine
History of Medicine
Boston Medical Library, Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine, Boston