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Ether: Anesthesia’s Maiden Voyage

The first public demonstration of the use of ether during surgery was a seminal moment in medical history.

By Meera Lee Sethi // The MGH Research Issue 2011
ether demonstration

Courtesy of MGH

In December 1846, a steamer docked at Liverpool bearing extraordinary news from Boston. In its hold was a letter from Jacob Bigelow, an American physician, to his British colleague Francis Boott. Bigelow reported, “Limbs and breasts have been amputated, arteries tied, tumors extirpated, and many hundreds of teeth extracted without any consciousness of the least pain.”

Some two months before, Bigelow had been part of the crowd watching as dentist William T. G. Morton and surgeon John Collins Warren set in motion a chain of events that culminated in the birth of a new medical discipline. Using an apparatus that consisted of a rounded glass vessel, a glass tube and a metal mouthpiece with two valves, Morton administered a dose of vaporized ether to a 20-year-old patient. Thus sedated, the young man scarcely let out a sound as Warren made an incision on the left side of his face and removed a tumor on his jaw. The operation, the patient claimed later, caused no pain, only the sensation of a “blunt instrument passed roughly across his neck.”

This first public demonstration of ether during surgery (depicted above) so impressed the local community that the Massachusetts General Hospital building where it took place—an amphitheater with a copper-clad cupola—became known as the Ether Dome.

ether machine

Apic/Getty Images

Boott passed along the news to a colleague, dentist James Robinson, and on Dec. 28, 1846, the physician John Snow observed as Robinson used ether while extracting teeth. Snow, who had already tried using ether to treat respiratory disorders, was thus inspired to investigate the effects of temperature on ether vapor, to develop better inhalers for administering the gas (such as the one shown at left), and to write more than 80 articles, letters, speeches and books that helped shape anesthesia into a science.

Snow’s awareness of how gases such as ether affect the respiratory system also proved critical during London’s 1848 cholera epidemic. Most believed the disease spread through miasma, or foul air, in places like slaughterhouses. But if this were true, Snow realized, slaughterhouse workers would have been most susceptible, and they weren’t. The insight spurred him to collect data showing that cholera was spread by contaminated water.

In 1853 Snow’s name was so synonymous with anesthesia that he provided it at a royal labor. For Queen Victoria, Prince Leopold’s birth was “soothing”; among physicians, the event sparked debate over the drug’s safety. By the time Snow repeated the feat at the birth of Princess Beatrice, in 1857, labor anesthesia had become more accepted—thanks partly to its very public sanction.

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