Counting Backwards: The Foggy History of the Ether Dome

Video by Grace Raver, Judith Lavelle and Fink Densford

Article by Judith Lavelle
BU News Service

On October 16, 1846, a Connecticut con man-turned-dentist gathered medical students, surgeons and a brave patient named Edward Gilbert Abbott into Mass General’s surgical amphitheater to demonstrate the effects of ether, an inhaled anesthetic. The successful surgery, in which Dr. John Collins Warren removed a tumor from Abbott’s neck, launched a medical revolution. Doctors could finally take their time during procedures without subjecting their patients to either agonizing pain or a horribly unsafe method of knocking them out.

The Ether Dome—as it has been renamed—sits above three floors of Mass General’s Bulfinch building. The stairwell pulls you past the psychiatric department, some administrative offices, charming photos of hospital staff from the forties and fifties and finally past a plaque that announces you’ve arrived at a historical landmark. Here, a story played out that still reaches into every modern operating room.

Today, each of the seats in the dome’s stadium seating is named for one of the influential people who were present during the demonstration or otherwise involved in ether’s origin story. William Morton, who introduced the compound to the doctors at Mass General, is “seated” in the front row beside Warren and Dr. Horace Wells, a pioneer in the use of nitrous oxide in dentistry and Morton’s former teacher. Though side-by-side in spirit, Morton and Wells had a troubled relationship following the monumental event.

“The drama is in the fascinating story of human kind and our frailties as well as our glorious moments,” says Robert Krim, an innovation historian at Framingham State University, “so it’s a very powerful story. It’s a complicated story.”

Morton trained as a dentist under Wells after years of evading the law on charges of fraud and theft. After his teacher’s experiments using nitrous oxide during tooth extractions proved useful, Morton applied the idea to surgery using sulfuric ether—but attributed none of his inspiration to Wells. Without his first teacher’s preliminary research in inhaled anesthetics, Morton—who had no formal scientific training—may not have changed medical history. And of all fields in medicine, surgery had a particularly brutal history.

Before the introduction of ether, patients would endure the surgeon’s instruments with alcohol or intentional head trauma or opium to numb the sensation—whether that be a scalpel piercing through skin or a saw gnawing through bone. Surgeons would work as quickly as they could, but in half of their cases, the traumatic experience would end with the patient’s dying from shock, a dangerous plunge in blood pressure. As a dentist, Wells too lamentably inflicted his fair share of pain but found some success in avoiding patient discomfort with laughing gas. When he finally had the opportunity to share his findings publicly, he failed to administer an adequate dose to the patient, and he was dismissed as a fraud when the tooth extraction seemed as painful as any other.

Morton’s attempt went much smoother. You need to inhale quite a bit of nitrous oxide to disregard pain, but a single administration of ether induces a deep anesthesia. On the day of the famous surgery, onlookers were stunned to watch Abbott sleep through every slice of Warren’s knife. The world rejoiced at the news that the young dentist had found an answer to pain, but a jilted Wells fell into a despair that would eventually lead him to take his own life.

In the modern operating room, surgeons no longer use ether to put their patients under anesthesia. Drug manufacturers now provide a variety of inhaled and intravenous anesthetics which can safely put patients to sleep. But as the original “answer to pain,” the discovery of ether remains a monumental step in the history of modern medicine.

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