One hundred fifty years ago, in the
operating theater on the top floor of the MGHs Bulfinch Building,
one of the greatest moments in medicine occurred. On Oct. 16, 1846,
William T.G. Morton, a Boston dentist, demonstrated the use of ether
during surgery, ending the indescribable pain and the overwhelming
dread that had been associated with the surgeons knife.
Using a specially designed glass inhaler
containing an ether-soaked sponge, Morton administered the anesthetic
to Gilbert Abbott, a printer who had come to the MGH for treatment
of a vascular tumor on his jaw. After several minutes, Abbott was
rendered unconscious. John Collins Warren, MD, one of the most widely
recognized surgeons of that time, then surgically removed the tumor.
Upon wakening, Abbott informed the curious and skeptical physicians
and medical students in the theater that he had experienced no pain.
As Abbott was being carried from the
operating theater, Warren turned and faced the incredulous assemblage
of onlookers. Gentlemen, this is no humbug, he said,
offering a peculiar, yet powerful, endorsement of the effectiveness
of anesthesia in surgery. With these now-famous words, a new era
of medicine began.
News of the discovery spread quickly,
and within months it was hailed as the greatest gift ever
made to suffering humanity. An item in the Peoples
Journal of London reflected this excitement:
what delight for every feeling heart to find the new year ushered
in with 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.