William T.G. Morton was an American dentist who is credited with revealing and popularising the use of aesthetics during operations. Although he was not the first to realise ether had anaesthetic properties, it was Morton who conducted the first public operation – leading to widespread acceptance and use of ether in painful operations. The introduction of anaesthetics revolutionised medical procedures; it overcame the terrible pain that amputees had to face when having a limb cut off. It also enabled a much greater range of operations, which would not have been possible without anaesthesia. Morton never benefitted from his discoveries as he hoped to. He spent his remaining years in rather futile legal proceedings trying to claim sole patent to anaesthesia, and he died aged 48 in New York. He is widely regarded as an instrumental figure in the practical use of anaesthesia.
Morton was born in Chalton, Massachusetts to the son of a miner on 9 August 1819. He worked briefly at odd jobs such as clerk, printer and salesman before entering into the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery, aged 21. After graduating, he formed a brief partnership with Horace Wells in Hartford, Connecticut.
In 1843, he married Elizabeth Whitman who was from a prestigious family. Her parents were not enamoured of Morton’s profession of a dentist – which at the time, was considered relatively basic. It still had associations with ‘circus tooth pullers’ – who extracted teeth with crude methods (and great pain). To please his new in-laws, he entered Harvard Medical school. Here he attended the lectures of Charles T. Jackson, where he heard about the anaesthetic properties of ether – a simple and easily available gas.
This lecture and knowledge intrigued Morton who routinely had the difficult job of extracting teeth – putting his patients into great pain. He often specialised in fitting false teeth, and this required the removal of old tooth roots. After experimenting with ether on himself and animals, Morton offered a patient the opportunity to try anaesthesia while undergoing a tooth extraction. On 30 September 1846 he successfully performed a tooth extraction and the patient happily reported the absence of pain.
This first operation received a small newspaper report but was not widely disseminated beyond the local area. However, Morton arranged with a Boston surgeon Henry Jacob Bigelow to have a public demonstration of the potential of ether. On 16 October 1846, at the Massachusetts General Hospital, or MGH, a doctor John Warren removed a tumour from the neck of the patient Edward Abbot. The operation was a great success with the doctor able to pursue the operation without pain. New of the successful use of anaesthesia spread quickly, and it marked a real turning point for medical science.
Morton attempted to patent ether under a brand name ‘Letheon’. However, it was known by many others in the medical profession that the gas was ether. Morton was also criticised for trying to profit from this essential medical development. Morton claimed he didn’t wish to stop hospitals and doctors using it, but hoped to make sure it was properly administered. Morton was also challenged by many others who disputed his claim to have discovered the anaesthetic. Not least by his former lecturer and mentor Dr Jackson and also his former partner Horace Wells. Wells had also attempted to pioneer the use of anaesthesia in dental operations through the use of nitrous oxide (laughing gas) as far back as 1844 – before Morton. However, Well’s public demonstration on nitrous oxide was not successful and Well’s attempt to claim a patent for the use of anaesthesia was largely unsuccessful. Nitrous oxide is largely considered to be insufficient to act as anaesthesia.
Ironically, the bitter feud between Morton, Horace Wells and Charles T.Jackson helped to raise the profile and knowledge of ether. The medical and dental world began using ether and ignored the patents issued by Morton and Wells.
In 1846, bills were submitted to Congress for national recompense, but this was rejected – three similar applications were also later rejected. However, in 1857, a public fund was set up to offer a suitable public reward to Morton. In 1871, the Historical Memoranda Relative to the Discovery of Etherization was formed, which sort to establish Morton as the inventor of ether.
During the American civil war, Morton enlisted in the Union army and served as a surgeon. He administered ether to countless soldiers.
In 1868, he was riding in a carriage with his wife, when he suffered a major stroke. He died shortly after.
How much credit can Morton take for discovering ether?
The knowledge of ether’s anaesthetic qualities had been known for many years. In 1842, a Georgia surgeon Crawford Williamson Long successfully employed ether. However, he never publicised his results until 1849. Morton undoubtedly learnt about ether from his mentor Charles T. Jackson. However, Morton’s great contribution was to be able to reveal and successfully publicise the use of ether. It was Morton who took the risk to experiment on patients and then offer up his services for public experiment. He could not have achieved this without his rivals – especially Jackson for the knowledge of ether. But Morton was certainly a key figure in bringing the role of ether into the medical world and public consciousness. By doing, he helped to speed up the revolution of medical surgery.
The French Academy of Sciences investigated the matter and decreed a Montyon prize of 2,500 francs to Jackson for the discovery, and another of like amount to Morton for the application of the discovery to surgical operations.
His tombstone read:
“Before whom, In all time, Surgery was Agony
By whom, pain in surgery was averted
Since whom, science has control over pain”
— Morton’s tombstone
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