Throughout most of human history, surgical procedures were performed only at the cost of incredible pain.    It was only in 1846 that effective anesthesia came into use. Until then pain relief was chancy at best, and it came in shots of whiskey or doses of opium or drafts of wine laced with hemp seed.    Sometimes partial unconsciousness was attained through hypnotism, or by inhaling either carbon dioxide or nitrous gas.    All these means were inadequate, though, and the terror that surgical patients faced was stark.

William Morton’s quest for an effective alternative began in 1843, when he arrived in Boston to set up a dental practice.  In those days, dentistry was primitive. Hoping to ease his clients’ suffering, Morton enrolled at Harvard College to train as a physician.    His tuition allowed him access to the surgical arena at the Massachusetts General Hospital, frequented by America’s top surgeons.

As he continued his search for a pain reliever, Morton asked Charles Jackson, an eminent chemist, to write down the composition of sulfurous ether.    Jackson gave Morton information sufficient to enable Morton to use ether in his experimentation.    Morton tried it first on his pet spaniel, and then on himself.   

Exhilarated by his success, he advertised for more dental patients.    Within two weeks he had successfully etherized 100 of them.    With each application of the anesthetic, Morton honed his skill until he convinced John Warren, premier surgeon of the day, to try ether in a surgical operation.

The Boot Shop Outlet

On October 16, 1846, a patient, Gilbert Abbott, was wheeled into the hospital’s amphitheater to have a neck tumor removed, which was successfully accomplished without any pain.

The achievement was widely reported.    Unhappily for Morton, however widely his pain-free procedure would be used, his own trouble had just begun:    as soon as his discovery was publicized, fraudulent claimants emerged, the most notorious being Charles Jackson’s, whose small advice earlier had been only incidental to Morton’s work. Jackson’s threats of blackmail over trumped-up Morton indiscretions, along with lawsuits regarding financial rights, eventually forced Morton to grant Jackson the public title of “co-discoverer,”    as well as a healthy (though undeserved) share of the profits that would thereafter come. That fuss and fury not only cost Morton a fortune in legal fees, but it also long delayed the international recognition that was rightly his alone.

Sadly, Morton’s problems continued to mount:    first, his efforts to patent his process raised the hackles of doctors who would now be required to pay him licensing fees.    Then, too, due to unskilled application of ether beyond Morton’s immediate control, several patients died under the knife, and their survivors sued the hapless inventor.    Furthermore, Federal bureaucrats denied him the payment that was due him for providing either to the Navy Department.

Dismayed and deep in debt, Morton sold his dental practice, auctioned off his house, and moved to the countryside.

By 1864 the Civil War had come to its most grim phase.    Even though Morton’s health had begun to fail, his resolve spurred him to volunteer for the Union medical corps. His expertise as an anesthetist was literally lifesaving during the thousands of amputations that were conducted under horrific conditions.

In 1868 Morton died of pulmonary failure in New York City.    He was only 48 years old.