Ether Day: The Strange Tale of America's Greatest Medical Discovery and the Haunted Men Who Made Itby J.M. Fenster, Julie M. Fenster, J. M. Fenster
When a surgeon cuts, the patient does not feel any pain. Today we take this for granted, but for generations surgery was constrained by the unbearable agony that went with ituntil three ill-fated heroes changed thecourse of medicine in 1846. After people had searched for a surgical painkiller for thousands of years, the first use of ether finally came about… See more details below
When a surgeon cuts, the patient does not feel any pain. Today we take this for granted, but for generations surgery was constrained by the unbearable agony that went with ituntil three ill-fated heroes changed thecourse of medicine in 1846. After people had searched for a surgical painkiller for thousands of years, the first use of ether finally came about through a combination of coincidence, character, and circumstance, as a cunning Boston dentist crossed paths with an inventive colleague from Hartford and a brilliant, mentally unstable geologist. The result was Ether Daya watershed moment that was joyously celebrated around the world for putting an end to pain in surgery. What followed, though, was a battle so bitter, it sent all three men spiraling out of control.
In her remarkable and engrossing book, Julie M. Fenster has written a vivid history that is stranger than fiction. Ether Day is the story of an American legend propelled by opportunism, glory, frustration, and tragedy.
- HarperCollins Publishers
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- 1 ED
- Product dimensions:
- 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.97(d)
Read an Excerpt
On Friday, October 16, 1846, only one operation was scheduled at Massachusetts General Hospital.
That was not unusual: At Mass General, the third most active center of surgery in the country, operations averaged only about two per week from the 1820s through the mid–1840s. Operations were special events in that era'a long ordeal of an era that was to end on that very day.
The patient, a housepainter named Gilbert Abbott, had been admitted to Mass General earlier that week, expecting to have a large growth cut from the side of his neck. It was the most unremarkable of cases, except that its very predictability suited it to another purpose entirely. With the Gilbert Abbott case, the chief surgeon at the most renowned hospital in New England decided to give William T. G. Morton'a twenty-seven-year-old dentist whose salient characteristic was an excess of charm'a patient on whom to demonstrate a secret compound that promised painless surgery.
The day before the operation was to take place, Morton had received a letter from the hospital: a letter he had been hoping to receive."Dear Sir,” it began, "I write at the request of Dr. J. C. Warren to invite you to be present on Friday morning at ten o'clock, to administer to a patient, then to be operated on, the preparation which you have invented to diminish the sensibility to pain.” The letter was signed by the house surgeon at Mass General, C. F. Heywood, but the invitation had come from the hospital's chief of surgery, John Collins Warren, the veritable dean of surgery in the UnitedStates.
Morton's immediate reaction was fear'panic, in fact'that pain wouldn't be the only thing he'd kill on Friday morning. He had tested his preparation on a few dozen of his dental patients during tooth extractions, but he didn't know whether the same amount would be sufficient in a medical operation, whether more of it would kill the patient, or whether the apparatus he used had any flaw that might allow for an accidental poisoning. In fact Dr. Morton didn't know much as he held Heywood's note in his hands, except that Dr. John C. Warren would be watching his every move the next morning at ten.
And Dr. John C. Warren's salient characteristic was an utter absence of charm.Morton's secret concoction was made of exactly two ingredients: first, sulfuric ether, a common liquid compound with a sweet pungency; and second, oil of orange to disguise the smell of sulfuric ether'that's what made it a secret, and that's what made it Morton's. There are other compounds known as "ethers,” such as chloric ether (a rather sinister cousin to the sulfuric form). However, unadorned with a prefix, "ether” refers to sulfuric ether.
In early experiments Morton's dental patients had inhaled ether fumes from a cloth doused with the liquid. Morton soon replaced the cloth with a more elaborate inhaling apparatus that gave him greater control in two ways:over the delivery of fumes to the patient and, more to the point, over the commercial potential of his discovery in the medical world. In neither case did William Morton quite understand the thing that he was trying to control, but he had his apparatus with which to attack them both, and with it under his arm he went rushing into the street upon receiving his letter from Mass General.Morton's destination was the workroom of Joseph M. Wightman, a specialist in the manufacture of scientific instruments. A small industry in making scientific instruments had been launched in Boston about fifteen years before, in the early 1830s, with the arrival of Josiah Holbrook, an enthusiastic Yale graduate whose goal was to introduce science to the general populace. Idealistic but utterly practical, too, Holbrook recognized that science in any form requires paraphernalia'great, endless closets full of stuff'if it is to maintain a bridge back and forth between abstraction and actuality. Yet scientific equipment was prohibitively expensive when Josiah Holbrook arrived in Boston. Harvard University boasted whole arrays of the latest apparatus, but only a few hundred people had access to any of it.
Holbrook's aim was to bring the new sciences to the American people, not merely to its professors. A biographer summarized his achievements in that regard in a single sentence: "An orrery [a model of the solar system], for example, similar to the one for which Harvard had paid $5,000 in Paris, Holbrook manufactured and sold for ten dollars.” Holbrook was not the only man in the United States promoting science so widely, but on his arrival in Boston, he was among the very few. By the 1840s science education was a small industry, centered in Boston, and without it, a man such as William Morton might have had nowhere to turn for help in a rush on the day before Ether Day.
Even in repose William Morton could give the impression of a man in a rush, with his attention hopping from subject to subject. Where others had poise, he had energy. Morton was a strikingly attractive man, according to those who saw him in person. And judging by photographs and portraits, he did make a flashy impression, much like that of a leading man on the stage. He was well-proportioned, being on the tall side with a medium build that people were inclined to think was elegant. Morton had dark, wavy hair and intense blue eyes, features that were set off throughout most of his life by an extravagant moustache. He dressed extravagantly, too, in rich fabrics when plain ones were in style, loud silk scarves flowing out from under his lapels, and ornate buttons punctuating the cut of his coats. Overly optimistic and then pessimistic by turns, Morton dominated situations simply by presenting everything that had happened so much more starkly than did anyone else...
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