After a hiatus, Smells Like Science is back with what I hope will be a new monthly series: Molecule of the Month. And the first molecule of the month is: ether (or diethyl ether to be exact).
There is an unusual, and mostly forgotten monument in a shaded area at the edge of the Boston Public Garden in downtown Boston. It was completed in 1868, and, like many other monuments built during the 19th century, it features classical statuary, granite columns, and biblical inscriptions. But unlike any other monument in the world, it memorializes a drug. The inscription on the front face of the monument reads: “To commemorate that the inhaling of ether causes insensibility to pain. First proved to the world at the Mass. General Hospital in Boston, October A.D. MDCCCXLV”
The inscription refers to the most famous public demonstration of ether as an anesthetic during surgery. On October 16th, 1846 a crowd of doctors and students gathered in the surgical amphitheater at Massachusetts General Hospital to watch as a dentist named William T.G. Morton instructed a patient to inhale the fumes from an ether-soaked sponge. After the patient was sufficiently sedated, a surgeon removed a tumor from his neck. When the patient awoke from his ether-induced stupor, the surgeon asked how he felt, to which he reportedly replied, “feels as if my neck’s been scratched.”
The patient felt no pain during the surgery, which seemed like a miracle at the time. Up until this point surgery was quick and brutal. Fully conscious patients bit the bullet – quite literally in some cases – while surgeons did their work. Ether obviously made surgery a more comfortable experience for patients, but it also allowed surgeons to take their time operating on anesthetized patients, which in turn allowed doctors to develop more and more complex and beneficial surgical techniques.
After the ether demonstration someone nicknamed the surgical amphitheater at Massachusetts General Hospital the Ether Dome, and it has been known by this name ever since. Today the Ether Dome is a national historic landmark, and is open to the public. Although surgeons haven’t operated there for well over a hundred years, the room is still used for meetings and lectures at the hospital. With the exception of a laptop and a projector, the Ether Dome looks more or less like it did 165 years ago. The entrance to the room is overshadowed by a marble statue of the Greek god Apollo, and two display cases filled with rusted 19th century surgical instruments stand at either end of the room. An Egyptian mummy, dissected in the room in the early 1800′s, stares outward from behind a glass case at the front of the room, while the back of the room is occupied by a steeply terraced bank of wooden seats.
At the time of William Morton’s ether demonstration, people had known about ether for more than 300 years. But for most of those 300 years no one had thought to use it as an anesthetic. Instead, people used it to get high. Straitlaced Victorians held parties where guests cut loose by inhaling ether fumes and losing motor control, to the amusement of everyone involved. These “ether frolics,” as they were known at the time, were part of a larger trend of inhaling drugs at parties for comic effect – helium and laughing gas (nitrous oxide) parties were also popular among wealthy Victorians.
But Morton was not the first doctor to discover ether’s anesthetic properties. That honor belongs to a physician from Georgia named Crawford Long who operated using ether nearly four years before Morton’s demonstration at Massachusetts General Hospital. Long, who was known to occasionally partake in ether – he even threw “ether frolics” in his medical office from time to time – was inspired to use ether during surgery by recreational ether inhalation at parties. He noticed that party guests, himself included, often stumbled into furniture or fell down and suffered cuts and bruises while under the influence of ether. This isn’t all that surprising considering that ether severely limits motor control at low doses and leads to unconsciousness at higher doses. What surprised Long at the time was that none of these bruised revelers remembered receiving any injuries or experiencing any pain.
And then, in 1839, word got back to Long about a boy slave from nearby Athens, Georgia who lost consciousness when he was given ether. The boy was apparently watching a group of teenagers who were using ether when they invited him to try some. He refused, but a few of the teenagers held him down and forcibly covered his nose and mouth with an ether-soaked rag. When they released him, the boy was unconscious and unresponsive. Worried that he was dead, someone ran to get a doctor. When the doctor arrived an hour later the boy was still unconscious but the doctor was able to revive him, and upon waking he seemed none the worse for wear.
These observations led Long to believe that ether could prevent pain during surgery. So, in 1842, he administered ether to a patient and then painlessly removed a tumor from his neck. Over the next few years, Long continued to operate with ether, and shared his discovery of ether’s anesthetic properties with other local physicians. But Long’s discovery was never widely publicized. So when William Morton demonstrated ether in Boston four years later, he touted it as a revolutionary new treatment, unaware that Crawford Long and his colleagues in Georgia had already used ether during surgery a number of times. It seems to have been a bizarre coincidence that ether was first used by both Long and Morton to anesthetize a patient before removal of a neck tumor.
Unlike Long, who, for whatever reason, chose not to immediately publish his ether discovery, it seems that Morton intended to capitalize on ether’s medical applications from the get-go – he was aware that ether could revolutionize medicine and he wanted to cash in. So he filed for a patent. Morton received his patent, but ether was already so widely known at the time that doctors around the world simply began using ether without paying Morton any royalties. Morton petitioned Congress for $100,000 (something between $2-3 million in today’s dollars) in compensation related to widespread royalty-free use of ether. Unfortunately for Morton, several others, including Crawford Long, came forward claiming that they were the original discoverers of ether’s anesthetic properties, and Morton never received any compensation. He spent the rest of his life trying to prove that he was the first to use ether as an anesthetic, and he died young and poor in 1868.
Today, Crawford Long is recognized as the first physician to use ether as an anesthetic during surgery. But it was William Morton’s ether demonstration at Massachusetts General Hospital, and his desire for fame and fortune, that first alerted the world to the miracle of anesthesia. At the time anesthetic ether was recognized as a medical revolution. So much so that an anonymous citizen of Boston raised funds to construct a monument to commemorate humankind’s triumph over pain.
Lewis JH (1931). Contribution of an Unknown Negro to Anesthesia. Journal of the National Medical Association, 23 (1), 23-4 PMID: 20892436