Ether Day: The Strange Tale of America's Greatest Medical Discovery and the Haunted Man Who Made It

Citation Information

Bender, Robert 2016. Ether Day: The Strange Tale of America's Greatest Medical Discovery and the Haunted Man Who Made It, URL = <>.

Publication Information

Fenster, Julie M., Ether Day: The Strange Tale of America's Greatest Medical Discovery and the Haunted Man Who Made It, New York: HarperCollins, 2001, pp. viii+278, (hardcover).

Oil painting in the manner of John Collier, known as 'Tim Bobbin', of a blacksmith extracting a tooth

This book review is a summary of Julie M. Fenster's story of the discovery and first uses of anaesthetics in surgical procedures and the ensuing lifelong battle for recognition by the various protagonists. Her account is contained in her book: Ether Day: The Strange Tale of America's Greatest Medical Discovery and the Haunted Man Who Made It.

In the 1840s, nitrous oxide (laughing gas) was a party entertainment, soon discovered not only to induce hilarity, but also to deaden sensation. At the same time, operations were conducted without anaesthetics, as none were known and the word had not yet been coined. Most people avoided operations until their pains became unbearable, with many dying of shock from amputations. Many also avoided tooth extraction as long as possible.

On 16th October 1846, at Massachusetts General Hospital, an austere surgeon, John Collins Warren, removed an external tumour from the neck of Gilbert Abbott. Using a concoction of sulphuric ether provided by William Morton, he succeeded in performing the operation with no pain experienced by Abbott. It was an historic occasion. Morton had been practicing (without any qualifications) as a dentist, offering the public painless tooth extraction using laughing gas at first, then substituting ether when he learned about it from a casual conversation. He had scrambled to produce an inhaler that would function safely on the day of Abbott's operation.

Morton was a poor, young man who had been a professional swindler from his mid-teens. He hurried away from a succession of towns, leaving large debts behind him, and got engaged to a succession of daughters of wealthy merchants, only to have them annulled when word of his frauds became public. Morton eventually set up in practice as a dentist, offering the very valuable service of painless tooth extraction. He fought for years, unsuccessfully, to pursue a patent for his ether concoction, which was really just ether with its sickly smell disguised with syrup.

Morton had some shipboard discussions with a geologist named Charles Jackson. These discussions led Jackson to try ether as a pain preventive. Jackson then went on to tell the world for many years that he had himself been the inventor of the process, a claim shared by Horace Wells. Wells, briefly, served as Morton's partner in the dental practice, another ne'er-do-well who ended up throwing vitriol at street prostitutes in New York while addicted to chloroform. Rather than face the humiliation of his dissipation when brought to trial, Wells suicided in the New York police lock-up.

Book cover: Ether Day: The Strange Tale of America's Greatest Medical Discovery and the Haunted Man Who Made It by Julie M. Fenster

Many conservative doctors, knowing what a charlatan Morton was, refused to use his method of anaesthesia, as to do so would have been seen as an acknowledgement that someone who was not a gentleman had earned their gratitude. They preferred to prolong surgery without any pain-preventive rather than admit such a debt to an upstart fraudster.

The patent was eventually granted by the US Patent Office, but was instantly unenforceable as doctors everywhere had already begun to apply ether in surgical practice to prevent pain. Meanwhile, sniffing nitrous oxide and sniffing ether turned out to be addictive, so one side-effect of this wonderful discovery was to create new types of addicts.

Jackson had written to various colleagues in Europe. Soon after, Robert Liston in England and other surgeons in France began to use ether. This practice was superseded when a Scot, James Simpson, experimented with other sniffable, non-flammable compounds and soon discovered the effects of chloroform, which had recently been invented. Morton was chronically needy, so tried for years to get a grant from the US Congress as a reward for his public service. This request was fought furiously by Jackson, who wanted sole credit. He used his brother-in-law, Ralph Waldo Emerson, to campaign on his behalf, as well as Wells and another doctor, Charles Long, who had used it successfully several years earlier without publicizing it.

Jackson's and Morton's life ambition became ensuring that the other was not credited with the great discovery. Morton spent years (and other people's money) tramping the country, drumming up support with substandard public lectures and petitions and sent lengthy documents to Congress arguing for his priority. Each of them dismissed at some moment of crisis when other urgent matters took over, such as the Civil War. Morton, eight years after the big event, suddenly died of heatstroke and strain from his endless efforts to get a big grant from Congress. Jackson accumulated a lengthy scrapbook of clippings, all designed to show he was the sole discoverer. He collapsed into a coma on his 67th birthday, after wasting 15 years in the vain pursuit of recognition. The whole thing is a bizarre human comedy, but for the very revolutionary impact the impostor Morton had on the development of surgery.

The interesting thing about this comedy is the reaction of conservative religious authorities to the surgical use of ether. 'Pain is the wise provision of nature and patients ought to suffer pain while their surgeon is operating; they are all the better for it, and recover better', shouted a physician at a public meeting in April 1847. A clergyman wrote that ether was 'a decoy of Satan. In the end it will harden society and rob God of the deep earnest cries which arise in time of trouble.'

What aroused the strongest reaction, however, was the prospect of using ether to reduce or eliminate pain during childbirth. The clergy said it was their God's will, expressed in Genesis, that women should experience pain in childbirth and that it was not for humans to overrule God's decree. Some fundamentalists published a pamphlet referring to all those passages in the Bible stating it was their God's will that women suffer birthing pain, concluding that anaesthetics should not be allowed. The introduction of anaesthesia was one of the many instances of significant progress in human society in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to which the religious authorities' automatic reaction was to resist, and to condemn it as contrary to their pain-loving God's will.

Copyright © 2016

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