“We Have Conquered Pain!” The Uses & Abuses of Ether in History

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The surgical revolution began with an American dentist and a curiously sweet-smelling liquid known as ether.

Officially, ether had been discovered in 1275, but its stupefying effects weren’t synthesized until 1540, when the German botanist and chemist Valerius Cordus created a revolutionary formula that involved adding sulfuric acid to ethyl alcohol. His contemporary Paracelsus experimented with ether on chickens, noting that when the birds drank the liquid, they would undergo prolonged sleep and awake unharmed. He concluded that the substance “quiets all suffering without any harm and relieves all pain, and quenches all fevers, and prevents complications in all disease.” [1] Yet inexplicably, it would be several hundred years before it was tested on humans.

00_01_morton-inhaler-replica-mThat moment finally arrived in 1842, when Crawford Williamson Long became the first pioneer to use ether as a general anesthetic when he removed a tumor from a patient’s neck in Jefferson, Georgia. Unfortunately, Long didn’t publish the results of his experiments until 1848. By that time, Boston dentist William T. G. Morton had won fame by using it while extracting a tooth painlessly from a patient on September 30, 1846 [see Morton’s inhaler for administering ether, right]. An account of this successful procedure was published in a newspaper, prompting a notable surgeon to ask Morton to assist him in an operation removing a large tumor from a patient’s lower jaw at Massachusetts General Hospital. After the demonstration, someone nicknamed the surgical amphitheater the “Ether Dome,” and it has been known by this name ever since.

It was an incredible breakthrough. Up until that point, surgery had been brutally painful. The patient, fully awake, would be restrained while the surgeon cut through skin, tissue, muscle, and bone. Surgeons were lauded for their brute strength and quick hands. A capable surgeon could remove a leg in under a minute. But with the discovery of ether, the need for speed in the operating theater had now vanished.

On November 18, 1846, Dr. Henry Jacob Bigelow wrote about this groundbreaking moment in The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal. He described how Morton had administered what he called “Letheon” to the patient before the operation commenced. This was a gas named after the River Lethe in classical mythology which made the souls of the dead forget their lives on earth. Morton, who had patented the composition of the gas shortly after the operation, kept its parts secret, even from the surgeons. Bigelow revealed, however, that he could detect the sickly sweet smell of ether in it. News about the miraculous substance which could render patients unconscious during surgery spread quickly around the world as surgeons rushed to test the effects of ether on their own patients.

The term “etherization” was coined, and the use of ether in surgery was celebrated in newspapers. “The history of Medicine has presented no parallel to the perfect success that has attended the use of ether,” a writer at the Exeter Flying Post proclaimed. [2] Another journalist declared: “Oh, what delight for every feeling heart… the announcement of this noble discovery of the power to still the sense of pain, and veil the eye and memory from all the horrors of an operation…WE HAVE CONQUERED PAIN!” [3]

5A curious by-product of all this was the ether parties that sprang up all over the world. Thomas Lint, a medical student at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, confessed: “We sit round a table and suck [on an inhaling apparatus], like many nabobs with their hookahs. It’s glorious, as you will see from this analysis of a quarter of an hour’s jolly good suck.” [4] He then went on to describe several “ethereal” experiences he and his fellow classmates had while under the influence of the newly discovered substance.

Ether wasn’t just inhaled. It was also drunk, like alcohol. In Ireland, the substance replaced whiskey for a while, due to its low cost (a penny a draught). After drinking a glass of water, “ethermaniacs” would take a drop of the drug on their tongues while pinching their noses and chasing it with another glass of water. Taken this way, ether hit the user hard and fast. Dr. Ernest Hart wrote that “the immediate effects of drinking ether are similar to those produced by alcohol, but everything takes place more rapidly.” [5] Recovery was just as swift. Those taken into custody for drunken disorderliness were often completely sober by the time they reached the police station, with the bonus that they also suffered no hangover. In this way, 19th-century revelers could take draughts of ether several times a day, with little consequence. [6]

Today, the “Ether Dome” at Massachusetts General Hospital has become a national historic landmark [pictured below], visited by thousands of members of the public each year. Although surgeons haven’t operated there for well over a hundred years, the room is still used for meetings and lectures at the hospital. The Ether Dome looks more or less like it did 165 years ago. Display cases at either end of the room contain surgical instruments from Morton’s day, their blades dull and rusted with age. At the front of the room an Egyptian mummy lords over the phantom audience. One can almost detect the sweet smell of ether in the air from so long ago.

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1. Quoted in Steve Parker, Kill or Cure: An Illustrated History ofMedicine (London: DK, 2013), 174.
2. “Etherization in Surgery,” Exeter Flying Post, 24 June, 1847, 4.
3. London People’s Journal, 9 January, 1847.
4. Punch, or The London Charivari (December 1847), 259.
5. Quoted in David J. Linden, Pleasure: How Our Brains Make Junk Food, Exercise, Marijuana, Generosity & Gambling Feel So Good (Viking, 2011), 31.
6. Sterling Haynes, “Ethermaniacs,” BC Medical Journal (June 2014), Vol. 56 (No.5), 254-3.

By | 2016-11-30T12:20:06+00:00 November 30th, 2016|Casebooks|1 Comment

One Comment

  1. coldhandboyack November 30, 2016 at 1:00 pm - Reply

    Another great post.

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