Ether – the confusion is real

If you’ve been following Scienstorical (my new YouTube channel) then you’ll have seen episode 2 already. If not, click the link! What are you doing?!

Ether... ... turns out it's not just for fun

Up to speed? Good.

Turns out, the story about Dr Crawford Long is not the only version. There are two others that lay claim to its discovery and they’ve been fighting for years about who got there first (well… technically they fought until they died then historians took up the arguments… minor detail).


The first, was a Dentist named Horace Wells. Now technically, he didn’t discover ether per se; he was the first to use a gas called “Nitrous Oxide” commonly known as laughing gas. This story is eerily similar to Long’s in that he noticed that laughing gas, while entertaining to those gathered to watch people inhale it, dulled pain so that it was almost non-existent. At the time, Dentistry had a bit of a bad reputation. People would generally much rather go around with rotting teeth than have them pulled out. Wells decided that this laughing gas might be a better option.

So, like most doctors at the time, he road tested it on himself. A colleague administered the gas to Wells in 1844 and then unceremoniously yanked one of his teeth out. Wells reported feeling nothing. In 1845, keen to share his extraordinary discovery, he gave a somewhat ill-fated demonstration at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Doctors and Dentists gathered from all over the country to witness this revolution in modern medicine. What they witnessed, however, was a patient writhing in agony. The anaesthetic had been botched and Wells was subsequently laughed out of the hospital as an idiot.

800px-WTG_MortonEnter his student, William T. G. Morton. Morton had been an apprentice of Wells’ when he had been experimenting with nitrous oxide and so knew that anaesthetic was definitely a thing. There’s a bit of evidence to suggest that he heard through the grapevine about Crawford Long’s success with ether and so started using it himself. In September of 1846, he performed a painless tooth extraction. A newspaper journalist heard about it and organised for a public demonstration at Massachusetts General Hospital. This time, it wasn’t an abject and horrifying failure. On October 16th, 1846, Morton removed a tumor from the neck of a patient with no signs of pain.

Newspapers went mental. The story travelled across the globe and soon, most hospitals were using ether as a general anaesthetic for surgeries. Morton went down in history as the inventor, the instigator of ether as an anaesthetic. There’s a statue of Morton in the grounds of the hospital and even the room where he performed the surgery is now called the “Ether Dome”.

… so why did I focus on Crawford Long?

CrawfordLong.jpgWell there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that he was the first to use ether in surgery. But really, historians still argue about whether that’s true or not. You see, Crawford didn’t publish his findings until well after the public surgery performed by Morton so he kind of looked a bit like a copy cat at the time. Morton was also, by all accounts, a bit of a greedy jerk-face (that’s the technical term). At the time medicine was a lot more collaborative; doctors freely shared information and techniques in an effort to save as many people as possible (a far cry from modern medicine’s myriad of patents and secretive laboratories). Morton, when asked about what he used in his demonstration, said it was a compound called “Letheon” and tried to patent and then sell the recipe to his colleagues. Needless to say, he won few points with the medical crowd.

It’s difficult to determine who it really was that first discovered anaesthetic but I think that makes the story all the more interesting. It also makes me more than a little bit happy to know that all accounts ascribe the medical advance to a serendipitous observation involving 19th Century men and women flailing about while high as kites.

Seriously… just dwell on that mental picture for a while.