William Thomas Green Morton Biography (1819-1868)

Dental Surgeon

Morton was the first person to show publicly that ether could be used as an anesthetic during surgery. After his demonstration, the use of ether as an anesthetic spread rapidly to Europe.

Morton was born August 9, 1819, to James and Rebecca Morton. His father was afarmer. Though Morton wanted to be a physician, his father could not affordthe tuition, so Morton settled for a diploma from the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery in 1840. He then practiced dentistry for several years. In 1844,he married Elizabeth Whitman. They had five children.

Several people had used ether as an anesthetic before Morton. Another dentist, Dr. Elijah Pope, extracted a patient's tooth using ether in January, 1842.Two months later, Crawford Williamson Long, a physician, used ether to removecysts from a patient's neck. Neither Pope nor Long publicized their applications of ether, and so Morton was first given credit for using ether as an anesthetic. Like many people of his time, Morton knew that some gases could makea person insensible to pain. Scientific lecturers traveled America promotingthe discoveries of new substances, among them, nitrous oxide (laughing gas),and ether. Typically, the lecturer would give one of these substances to a member of the audience, who would stagger around intoxicated or burst into fits of laughter. Hardly anyone thought that these chemicals could be anesthetics. In fact, Oliver Wendell Holmes did not invent the term "anesthetic"until November, 1846.

One person who made the connection was a dentist partner of Morton's, HoraceWells. Wells had one of his own teeth extracted while using nitrous oxide, and he felt nothing. He wanted to show others this new application of nitrous oxide. He persuaded Dr. John Collins Warren, a famous Boston surgeon, to let him demonstrate nitrous oxide to a class of medical students at the Massachusetts General Hospital. During the operation, someone prematurely removed the bag supplying the nitrous oxide to the young patient, who yelled out as thoughhe were in pain. The assembled medical students thought the demonstration was a hoax, and they shouted insults at Wells. Though the patient later said hehad felt no pain, Wells' career was doomed. He committed suicide in jail inJanuary1848.

Morton had assisted Wells during the failed demonstration at Massachusetts General Hospital, and he refused to repeat Wells' mistake. Morton consulted with one of his teachers, Charles T. Jackson, who suggested that he use sulfuricether. Morton then thoroughly studied the application of sulfuric ether in dental surgery. He even disguised its odor by blending it with aromatic chemicals. He called the resulting compound, "letheon." Morton tried his ether compound on one patient on September 30, 1846, and it successfully worked. One Boston newspaper, the Journal, reported his success the next day. Then Morton tried another demonstration with the same Dr. Warren at the Massachusetts General Hospital. On October 16, 1846, as a number of medical students watched, Morton applied ether to his patient, Gilbert Abbot. Then, with Abbot safely unconscious, Morton removed a tumor from his jaw. Abbot felt nothing. After his successful demonstration, Morton made a point of telling the assembled students that his "letheon" was no hoax. Before 1846 was over, ether was used in surgeries in London and Paris.

Having triumphed in the surgical auditorium, Morton promptly made a costly mistake. He tried to prevent others from using his ether anesthesia, and he became embroiled in a legal battle with Charles T. Jackson over who had first discovered the anesthetic properties of ether. Jackson claimed that Morton wasacting as his agent, Morton claimed otherwise, and Morton eventually lost hispractice and nearly all of his money fighting Jackson. Jackson eventually died in an insane asylum, and on July 15, 1868, Morton died in poverty in New York City. When Oliver Wendell Holmes was asked his opinion about who should get the credit for discovering the anesthetic properties of ether, he punned,"e(i)ther."

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