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Medicine’s greatest gift

One hundred fifty years ago, in the operating theater on the top floor of the MGH’s 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 surgeon’s 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 People’s Journal of London reflected this excitement:

    Oh, 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.
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Last modified: May 11, 2005