The story of William Morton, drop-out dentist who discovered pain-free surgery

By June 8, 2014Science heroes

This story is by Jen Morris. You can hear her tell the story here.

On the surface William Morton did not look set to live a life of great note. Indeed, to the casual onlooker, he seemed like a downright loser.

Born in 1819, he drifted aimlessly between careers as a clerk, printer and salesman in Boston. Eventually, with a sudden burst of lofty ambition, he entered Baltimore College of Dental Surgery. He dropped out less than two years later. 

But dropping out was of little concern to Morton. Like a true 19th century man of integrity, he decided to just practice dentistry anyway. So he began work in Connecticut, alongside real dentist, Horace Wells. The two shared a brief business partnership, but that venture also failed.

In 1843 Morton married Elizabeth Whitman – niece of a former Congressman and frankly, a woman far out of his league. Her parents objected fervently to Morton’s profession, believing his status not befitting of their daughter. They only agreed to the marriage after he promised to study medicine. True to his word, he began studying at Harvard Medical School in 1844. But true to his form, he dropped out.

While not cut out for actually being a student, Morton revelled in the student lifestyle. He regularly attended student drug parties, where the chemistry types would pass around the latest mind-bending substances for shits and giggles, and the occasional fatality.

It was at one such party that Morton’s former dentistry partner Horace Wells first encountered nitrous oxide – also known as ‘laughing gas’. Wells observed how well it dulled pain. This made a deep impression on him. 

Because Wells, like many surgeons and dentists at the time, was utterly mortified by the extreme pain he had to inflicted on a daily basis. Surgery was an almost incomprehensibly barbaric, brutal and gruesome practice. There was no established concept of anaesthesia. Indeed, the established belief was that pain was necessary to keep patients alive during surgery because it “kept the mind alert and aware”.

Patients were strapped to tables while surgeons hacked at their flesh with primitive tools. Patients would scream in agony, faint, thrash around, and very often, die of shock. The medicos had one thing right – I imagine that if my leg was being amputated without anaesthetic, I would certainly be ‘alert and aware’ of the fact.

Enlivened by the tantalising idea that this brutality need not be, Wells experimented with nitrous oxide on himself and patients. And what a tempting prospect he uncovered. The gas seemed to work. Could nitrous oxide really open the door to pain-free surgery? Wells did not seek a patent for his discovery, for he believed that, in the interests of humanity, pain relief ought to be “as free as air”. 

Wells headed to Harvard Medical School in Boston to tell the elite surgeons about his discovery. In another act of generosity, he invited his former dentistry partner, our friend William Morton, to accompany him and share his triumph. Yes, that’s right, Wells brought a Harvard drop-out back to Harvard, to dazzle its most elite glitterati. Little did he know how his generous offer would haunt his legacy forever.

On that cold winter’s night in 1845, Wells and Morton appeared in an amphitheatre packed with sceptical doctors and medical students – one of whom had a problem with his teeth. He was summoned forward and given a blast of nitrous oxide from a bag. Wells then attempted to extract his painful tooth with a pair of pliers. 

What followed was total chaos. The student made a noise, the crowd interpreted it as a cry of pain, they went into uproar, and showered Morton and Wells in boos, hisses and cries of “humbug, humbug”. The latter was a toxic medical insult. 

Humiliated – Morton and Wells left. Wells, broken by the failure, later became addicted to chloroform and died by suicide. But Morton did not give up. A man of far different ethics, he had dollar signs in his eyes. He could see the commercial potential in being the only dentist (well wannabe, untrained dentist), who could perform his work without inflicting pain.

He turned to another substance doing the rounds at his beloved drug parties – sweet oil of vitriole. Now known as ether.

Morton decided to try applying ether to a body part, to see what would happen. So of course he chose the lowest-risk and most sensible option – by applying it directly to the inside of his mouth. He experienced a promising numbing sensation.

Then he did the next most obvious thing – he used a larger amount to knock out a spaniel. The spaniel lived, and appeared fine. That was enough for Morton.

Soon after, he entered his office, got a handkerchief, applied some ether to it, looked at his watch, then lay back and placed the handkerchief over his face. A few minutes later he woke, totally unable to move. We later wrote “I was terrified that I would die in that position and the world would laugh at my folly”. One can only imagine how it would have looked by the time he was found, the ether on the handkerchief long since dried. William Morton – cause of death – smothered by his own flat handkerchief.

Luckily for Morton, he made a full recovery, and quickly moved on to performing trials on his unsuspecting patients. Although, given that the ether was a success, and they were spared the horrors of anaesthetic-free multiple tooth extractions, one thinks they may have suspected something was amiss. 

At 9:00pm on September 30, 1846, Morton used ether to perform a painless tooth extraction on Eben Frost, a local merchant. This was the trigger for him to risk it all. He wrote to Harvard Medical School, where he had experienced such humiliation, asking for one last chance to demonstrate pain relief.

It was granted. The date was set for just 16 days later – October 16th, 1846. On that Friday the formidable domed surgical theatre was packed with medical folk, many expecting, and indeed, hoping, that this uppity non-dentist dentist would fail again. To avoid trickery, an eminent and sceptical surgeon was booked to perform the actual operation – the removal of a large tumour from the neck of a young man – Edward Abbott.

In full anticipation that he would be awake and screaming throughout, Abbott was strapped down.

At 10:00am, the arranged time, there was no sign of Morton, so the surgeon prepared to operate without him. At the very last moment, Morton came bursting in. In his hands was a glass ether inhaler, which he had had built overnight. A complicated system of chambers and valves that had never been tested or calibrated. He had no idea if it would actually work.

He handed the device to the patient, who took some big whiffs of this allegedly magical stuff. Moments later, the patient reported feeling groggy. Morton took the inhaler back, turned to the surgeon and said, ‘sir, your patient is ready’.

What happened next must have seemed like a miracle. The surgery proceeded, and the patient made not a sound, nor a stir. The operation was long and complicated, but successful. At the end, the patient was asked how he felt. His answer, after such invasive surgery – “feels as if my neck has been scratched”.

The once sceptical surgeon turned to his astonished audience and said “gentlemen, this no humbug!”.

Following the demonstration, Morton, with profit in mind, tried to hide the identity of the substance by referring to it as “Letheon”. But others soon identified the ether from its distinct smell. News of its miraculous properties spread around the world in six months – which was lightning speed at the time.

Sadly, Morton’s legacy is tainted by the acrimonious 20-year battle for money, credit and fame that followed.

A month after the demonstration, Morton was issued with a patent for ‘letheon’. The medical community condemned this as unjust and illiberal in such a humane and scientific profession. Morton tried to assure his colleagues that he would not restrict the use of ether by hospitals and charitable institutions. He alleged that his motives were to ensure competent administration of ether, to prevent its misuse, and recoup its development expenses. His colleagues did not yield, so Morton did not enforce the patent, and ether was soon in wide use.

For the rest of his life, Morton obsessively pursued the promotion and recognition of his questionable claim to have discovered anaesthesia. In fact, Georgia surgeon Crawford Long had successfully employed ether as an anaesthetic on March 30, 1842 – over four years before Morton did. So why no glory for Long? Possibly afflicted by the so-called ‘ether frolics’ himself he didn’t get around to publishing his monumental findings until seven years later – three years after Morton’s demonstration. 

Furthermore, Morton’s former mentor from Harvard Dr Charles Jackson, and his former dentistry partner Horrace Wells, both had well-substantiated claims to have introduced Morton to the anaesthetic properties of ether. A three-way battle for the credit ensued for decades.

Morton tried repeatedly to seek compensation from the US Congress for the wide use of his alleged invention. But all four attempts failed. He later launched a lawsuit against the United States Government. This too failed. 

To me it doesn’t matter who was first. All of these men made an important contribution to the development of modern surgery, and the stripping away of its barbaric history. Morton’s contribution was that it was his enterprising commercial spirit – like it or not – that lead to the widespread adoption of anaesthesia. 

Despite two decades of campaigning for recognition, he died aged 49, utterly impoverished. His death on July 15 1868, in New York’s Central Park – unable to find shelter from a heatwave – does not seem befitting of the man who brought anaesthesia to the world stage. A man judged far too harshly by history, for daring to mix money and science.

Personally, as I spend 2014 filling out 80-page funding proposals, I think the man knew was a genius. Not just because I wouldn’t be here without the kind of surgery he made possible. But because he clearly knew what the future had in store for science.