William Thomas Green Morton, American dental surgeon, in 1846 gave the first successful public demonstration of ether anesthesia during surgery. He is credited with gaining the medical world’s acceptance of surgical anesthesia.
Morton began dental practice in Boston in 1844. In January 1845 he was present at Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, when Horace Wells, his former dental partner, attempted unsuccessfully to demonstrate the anodyne properties of nitrous oxide gas. Determined to find a more reliable pain-killing chemical, Morton consulted his former teacher, Boston chemist Charles Jackson, with whom he had previously done work on pain relief. The two discussed the use of ether, and Morton first used it in extraction of a tooth on September 30, 1846.
On October 16th, he successfully demonstrated its use, administering ether to a patient undergoing a tumour operation in the same theatre where Wells had failed nearly two years earlier. Morton named his “creation” Letheon, after the Lethe River of Greek mythology. Drinking its waters, the ancients contended, erased painful memories. Unfortunately, Morton attempted to obtain exclusive rights to the use of ether anesthesia. He spent the remainder of his life engaged in a costly contention with Jackson, who claimed priority in the discovery, despite official recognition accorded to Wells and the rural Georgia physician Crawford Long.
While many toyed with anesthetic agents, it was Morton who first developed a novel delivery instrument to enable ether inhalation during an operation. The device consisted of a glass flask with a wooden mouthpiece that could be opened and closed depending on the patient’s state of consciousness. This was critical because other experimenters, including Wells and Long, could not ensure rapid reversibility of the anesthetic state and often overdosed their patients. Morton’s genius resided not only in his observations of the power of ether but also in his development of a crude but scientific method of regulating its inhalation, thus creating the field of anesthesiology.