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Conquering surgical pain: Four men stake their claim

It has the makings of a great movie — powerful characters, an enticing plot and a strange twist of events — only this drama unfolds, in part, right here at the MGH. It involves the controversy surrounding four men who each claim to be the first to discover the means to prevent pain during surgery.

Possibly the first to conceive of using ether to alleviate the pain of surgery was Crawford W. Long, MD, of Georgia. It was not until others took credit for the finding that he claimed to have used it as early as 1841 for minor operations. In January 1845, after using nitrous oxide successfully during tooth extractions, Horace Wells, a Connecticut dentist, was permitted to demonstrate his technique to a group of Harvard Medical School students at the MGH. Perhaps because Wells had administered an insufficient dose, the patient cried out in pain. The crowd laughed, yelled “humbug” and drove Wells out of Boston. In 1864, the American Dental Association and the American Medical Association credited Wells with the discovery.

Jackson Long Morton Wells

Two years later Boston dentist William T.G. Morton, a colleague of Wells, administered ether to Gilbert Abbott at the MGH, marking the first successful public demonstration of the technique. Morton called his drug “letheon” but later was forced to reveal that it was simply ether.

Finally, Charles Jackson, MD, a Boston physician and chemist who had advised Morton to use ether, claimed to have a large part in the discovery and pressed his claims for credit all the way to Congress, which upheld Morton as the true discoverer.

Jackson had a history of making such claims — he also claimed that Samuel Morse stole his idea for inventing the telegraph. With the battle still raging, each man fell infamously to his grave, never receiving full recognition for the discovery. Though no one person can take credit for the achievement.

So widely appreciated was the achievement of painless surgery that in 1868 a Bostonian named Thomas Lee had a monument erected in the Public Garden “to commemorate the discovery that the inhaling of ether causes insensibility to pain. First proved at the Mass. General Hospital in Boston.” The granite and red marble memorial remains the park’s only monument to an event rather than an individual. At the time, its commissioning was somewhat controversial — some deemed it inappropriate to celebrate man’s attempt to circumvent God’s law by eliminating pain. Below is the sculpture depicting the biblical parable of the Good Samaritan that sits atop the ether memorial.

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