Ether Day: The Strange Tale of America's Greatest Medical Discovery and the Haunted Men Who Made It / Edition 1

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On Friday, October 16, 1846, only one operation was scheduled at Massachusetts General Hospital....

That day in Boston, the operation was the routine removal of a growth from a man's neck. But one thing would not be routine: instead of using pulleys, hooks, and belts to subdue a patient writhing in pain, this crucial operation would be the first performed under a general anesthetic. No one knew whether the secret concoction would work. Some even feared it might kill the patient.

This engrossing book chronicles what happened that day and during its dramatic aftermath. In a vivid history that is stranger than fiction, Ether Day tells the story of the three men who converged to invent the first anesthesia –– and the war of ego and greed that soon sent all three men spiraling wildly out of control.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Though ether may not spring to mind in a search for the "greatest" medical discovery, the description of surgery before ether at the beginning of this book will make a strong case for it. This fascinating account tells of the three men responsible for bringing ether to the world and details their bitter falling-out.
Kirkus Reviews
American Heritage columnist Fenster examines the tangled tale of the invention of anesthesia. Dava Sobel and Janet Gleeson have established a new model for authors working in the history of science—i.e., find some aspect of everyday life that we take for granted but whose invention involved a complicated story (preferably with something sinister attached to it), sprinkle with intelligent social history (to place it in a larger context), write well, and stir. Fenster has adhered to this formula nicely and the resulting work is, like those of her predecessors, a model of sound popular science. It begins with a simple question: Who was the father of painless surgery, as first practiced at Massachusetts General Hospital on October 16, 1846? The three claimants to the title are as dissimilar as any men of the era could possibly be. Horace Wells was a pious and earnest dentist who became interested in the possibilities of nitrous oxide as a way of rendering patients insensible; William T.G. Morton, who learned dentistry from Wells, was a semi-literate con man; and Charles Jackson was one of the most prominent men of science in Boston—an arrogant and rigid figure who claimed that Samuel Morse stole the idea of telegraphy from him. This trio became locked in a struggle to claim credit for the invention of anesthesia, a struggle that led all three to destruction. What each seems to have lost sight of is the importance of the advance itself; but Fenster is particularly good at reminding readers of the nightmare of surgery before anesthesia (she describes one operating room whose features included "hooks, rings and pulleys set into the wall to keep the patients in place duringoperations"). The cast of characters here is a rich one, including such luminaries as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Samuel Colt, not to mention cameos by Robert Southey, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Henry David Thoreau. Fenster balances all the various elements of the tale admirably and writes with acerbic wit. Despite occasional repetitions: a thoroughly compelling account, well told and well situated in its larger context.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060933173
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 10/28/2002
  • Series: Harper Perennial Series
  • Edition description: First Perennial Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 621,894
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.64 (d)

Meet the Author

Julie M. Fenster, columnist for the Forbes magazine Audacity, has written articles for publications, including American Heritage, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. She is the author of the best-selling In the Words of Great Business Leaders, the comprehensive Everyday Money, and award-winning books on business history.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Ether Day

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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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Prologue: The Laughing-Gas Joke 1
1 Ether Day 5
2 A Blank Whirlwind of Emotion 21
3 The Hilarity Before Ether Day 33
4 The Entertainment Is Scientific 53
5 Unwilling Collaboration 65
6 Silence in the Dome 77
7 The Confidence Man 81
8 Next What? 95
9 Power Struggle 106
10 A World Waiting 117
11 Repelled by a Common Moment 124
12 Charles Jackson's Universe 128
13 Horace Wells in Paris 146
14 Chlory 164
15 All Alone at the Tombs 176
16 In the Lobby of the Willard Hotel 187
17 Emerson's Wife's Brother 201
18 Morton's Civil War 213
19 Poison in the Beams 226
20 In Dr. Jackson's Scrapbook 230
Epilogue: Since Ether Day 240
Endnotes 243
Selected Bibliography 265
Acknowledgments 267
Index 269
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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 26, 2004

    Just another example........

    Just another example of a non scientist (as it seems by her writing) writing about a very scientific event. I'll admit, it is a good story, but she should read up on Chemistry nomenclature. Other than that, its a good book.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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