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The Ether Dome: The restoration of an icon

Specialists carefully scraped and packaged specimens. They analyzed the samples using advanced computer technology. Then, based on the analysis, they meticulously repaired the damage of decades.

What might sound like a description of a surgical procedure is a recap of one of the thousands of steps involved in restoring the MGH Ether Dome — the crowning structural feature of the first building of the hospital — in time for the 150th anniversary of the first successful demonstration of ether during surgery.

The Ether Dome was designated a National Historic Site in 1965. In 1971 the Bulfinch Building was added to the roster of National Historic Landmarks.

The specimens collected were in fact paint chips from the early 19th century that yielded clues to the original color scheme of the Ether Dome. Following those clues, design and architectural specialists ascertained the pigments and hues and replicated as closely as possible the original look of the room. In similar fashion, each area of the room has been restored.

Once again the unofficial symbol of the MGH is a shining testimony to a glorious moment in medical history.

This latest project is not the first time the Ether Dome has been altered and updated to meet changing needs and technologies since the cornerstone of the Bulfinch Building was laid July 4, 1818. Between 1821 and 1868 more than 8,000 operations were performed in the chamber — one door still bears the words “Operating Room.” Since then, the dome served as a storage area until 1873, a dormitory until 1889, a dining room for nurses until 1892, and most recently as a teaching amphitheater.

Designed by architect Charles Bulfinch, the construction of the Bulfinch Building was completed under the direction of Alexander Parris when Bulfinch was called upon to the design the nation’s Capitol.

This latest renovation sought to restore as much of the room as possible while updating the site for current and future uses — new audio-visual facilities for slide projection as well as telecommunication and sound controls have been installed.

The cast statue of Apollo that today stands in the Ether Dome was given to the MGH in March 1845 by the Honorable Edward Everett. In exchange, the hospital trustees presented to him “their grateful acknowledgments for his beautiful gift, valuable as a memorial, that, amidst his arduous public duties in a foreign country, Mr. Everett feels an undiminished interest in the charitable institutions of his native land.” The statue was crafted in the Louvre in Paris, France.

To accomplish a true restoration, architects and designers relied on historical documents and photos as well as clues from the current room. Early daguerreotype images of the room show that the original floor was made of wooden strips approximately five inches wide, which were replaced with concrete as part of a 1930s overhaul focused on bringing the site up to safety and fire codes. The cork floor seen in recent years has now been replaced with five-inch wide oak floor boards replicating the original pattern.

In that major 1930s renovation, the wooden-tiered seating was replaced with steel tiers. Although the seats have always been steeply arranged, originally there were seven rows of benches. Uncomfortably tight leg room inspired a change, and in 1939 only five rows were installed. In 1956 a sixth row of bicycle seats was added to the rear, and three curved benches were added at the front.

Originally lit naturally by sunlight, the Ether Dome has been modified to keep up with changing technology, first in 1849 when gas lanterns were introduced to the hospital, and again in the late-19th century when electrical lights were installed. In a 1956 renovation, the 1930s crook-necked lamps at each side of the amphitheater base were removed. New light fixtures were added along with motorized louvers at the skylight. All of the windows in the cupola at the top of the dome were re-placed. With this latest restoration the interior of the dome and cupola are now lit by special lighting, including a new ring of lighting at the base of the cupola.

Restoring the dome itself proved more complex than initially anticipated, says Carleton Nickerson Goff of Planning and Construction. “At the start of the project, it was our intent to refurbish the cupola. But extensive rotting made replacing all of the structure supporting the dome necessary. All new work has, however, been completed to match the original design.

“Presenting a grand aesthetic cap to the entire refurbishing project, the copper dome over the cupola has been cleaned and polished,” says Goff. Once again the unofficial symbol of the MGH is a shining testimony to a gloriuos moment in medical hitory.

Known as the surgical amphitheater until Morton and Warren’s triumphant surgery in 1846, the name Ether Dome came into popular use soon thereafter. No record exists, however, of who coined the name or when.

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