William Morton and Etherization (Part 2)

(Apologies for not posting recently. Life intervened.)

After reading the first part of my profile on Dr. William T.G. Morton (click here if you haven’t read it), you may be wondering what more I could write about. After all, I’ve already discussed the pinnacle of his professional career — his public demonstration of etherization. But there’s actually a second chapter to this story involving the acceptance of ether as a general anesthetic and Morton’s quest for fame and fortune. I know that might not sound very exciting, but it brings up the development of ‘Etherton,’ Morton’s estate that occupied the current site of Town Hall near Wellesley Square. And isn’t that all anyone reading this blog really cares about?

So let’s begin in the days and weeks following Morton’s successful demonstration at Massachusetts General Hospital on October 16th of 1846. As one can imagine, there was a large response from the medical community. Much of it, however, wasn’t positive. Most doctors and surgeons unaffiliated with MGH doubted Morton’s success. Others denounced the use of ether as a general anesthetic, claiming it was dangerous and that the current methods to alleviate pain worked just fine. But these sentiments would fade quickly as etherization took root in hospitals throughout the United States and Europe. Even the US Army began using ether to treat wounded soldiers during the Mexican-American War of 1846-48.

Morton knew then that he had revolutionized modern medicine and therefore felt that he should be rewarded handsomely for his discovery. But the prizes that arrived disappointed him. Although Great Britain recognized his success — it gave him two separate awards totaling £25,000 (the equivalent of more than $3,000,000 in 2013 dollars) — others were not as generous. The only additional prizes Morton received were a bunch of medals from France, Norway, Sweden, and the Russian Empire. Much to his dismay, the United States government would not award him a dime despite four petitions to Congress.

Part of the reason that these attempts for a monetary award were fruitless was that several prominent doctors and surgeons also claimed credit for the discovery of etherization. One of those included his colleague, Dr. Charles T. Jackson, who had unknowingly inspired Morton to consider the use of ether as well as provided him supplies for his experiments. Now Jackson wanted some of the credit. To complicate matters even further, it turned out that Morton wasn’t even the first person to use ether as a general anesthetic. That distinction would go to Crawford Long, a surgeon in Georgia whose discovery of etherization predated that of Morton by four years but was unknown to the medical community until 1849. (Nevertheless, Morton is still credited with the discovery of ether as a general anesthetic.)

Why Morton fought so hard for an award is a crucial part of this story. Quite simply, he had been extremely financially irresponsible over the years (even after receiving £25,000 from the British government) and needed money to pay off his creditors. Initiated when Morton quit his job in 1845 in order to devote all of his time to experimenting with ether, these financial problems were made worse when, that same year, he bought property on the current site of Town Hall in Wellesley. And then, the following year — perhaps in anticipation of the success he would have with ether — Morton began spending even more money that he didn’t have to develop this property into one of the finest estates in all of Wellesley.

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Source: Godey’s Lady’s Book, Volume 46 (1853)

The following passage from Hale (1853) provides a brief description of his estate — which he dubbed ‘Etherton’ — along with the area around Wellesley Square:

“The grounds embrace about six acres, in a natural basin surrounded by an amphitheatre of forest-clad hills, dotted with residences. From the centre of this hollow rises a knoll, and on it stands the cottage — a picturesque building of the English style of rural architecture. The prospect from its every window is, of course, superb. In the foregrounds are the serpentine walks, rustic summer-houses, flower-beds, young trees, sparkling streams, and other appurtenances of the mansion itself. Beyond, we see the village church, the farm-houses of the industrious yeomanry, and the other quiet beauties of a country landscape, while an occasional train sweeps along the adjacent railway like a fiery dragon, a type of the nervous, go-ahead spirit of this utilitarian age.”

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Source: McClure’s Magazine, Volume 7 (1896)

What’s missing from that description is any mention of the farm that covered much of the estate, which is a bit surprising given how important farming was to Morton. After years and years of fighting for fame and fortune, he was drained physically and emotionally. Farming was one of the few activities in life that provided Morton happiness. This was no doubt a result of the successes he had in crop cultivation and animal husbandry (receiving prizes for his horses, cattle, pigs, turkeys, and chickens), applying the same creative genius to farming that he used while experimenting with ether.

In addition to these more standard farm animals, Morton also raised a number of different breeds of waterfowl, as described in this wonderfully entertaining passage from Rice (1859):

“We stood in the main floor, near the southern or back door of the barn, which overlooked the green field; the little gate opened, and such a screaming, crowing, gabbling ensued, and such a flutter of wings, that for a few minutes it was nearly deafening. A pair of Chinese geese led the way of this feathered community. These geese, a present from the late statesman, Daniel Webster, to Dr. Morton, who prized them accordingly, were entirely brown, of large size, carrying their heads very high, and walking nearly upright; they sent forth shouts that made the air ring. They seemed to consider themselves the Celestials, and all beside inferiors. Next, came a pair of wild geese; one wing cut, and thus obliged to remain in the yard, they had become quite tame; but still, their trumpet call seemed to tell their love of freedom. These, too, were brown, with black heads, and long lithe necks, that undulated like the motions of a snake, with every movement. Very unlike these were the next pair of snow-white Bremen geese, stout, fat, contented-looking creatures, only making the usual gabbling of geese which are well to do in the world. Among the varieties of the duck genus were several of the Poland species; snowy white, except the vermilion-colored spots on the head, that look like red sealing-wax plasters round the eyes. These ducks made a terrible quackery. But the domestic fowl was the multitude; there appeared to be all kinds of species, from the tall Shanghais, that seemed to stalk on stilts, to the little boat-like creepers that move as if on castors. It was a queer sight, such an army of hens and chickens, rushing hither and thither, to pick up the gain scattered for their supper. And then the pride of the old peacock; he just entered with the rest, then spread his heavy wings and flew up to the ridgepole of the barn, where he sat alone in his glory. It was, altogether, a pleasant sight.”

This shouldn’t, however, give you the impression that Morton was no longer actively involved in dentistry. In fact, he made quite a name for himself manufacturing artificial teeth in the years following his discovery of etherization. He even built an enormous ‘tooth factory’ on Etherton, located conveniently near the railroad yard where quartz and feldspar — the primary materials of the fake teeth — were delivered from New Jersey. And ‘factory’ really is an appropriate description of the building. On its first floor, burly workmen operated large machines that crushed these rocks into a fine powder that was then incorporated into a liquid paste. And upstairs, fourteen young women sat in a single room manufacturing the teeth, first pouring the paste into teeth molds, then placing them in a large furnace, and finally scraping away any imperfections. This operation was so successful that Morton was able to sell these artificial teeth to dentists throughout the world.

But despite the income generated from the ‘tooth mill’ and his award from Great Britain, Morton would still struggle financially. He certainly didn’t improve the situation when he bought another large piece of property in Wellesley — on Grove Street on the site of the current Dana Hall campus — and built a mansion that rivaled Etherton Cottage in its extravagance. (He wouldn’t, however, move into the house, which would later become the longtime home of Charles B. Dana, the namesake of Dana Hall.)

Things got so bad for Morton that around 1860, he was hanged in effigy on a mammoth Buttonwood tree that stood in Wellesley Square. Although it has been reported over the years that this act was carried about by local citizens upset by Morton’s unsettled debts, in reality, it was probably instigated by Morton’s creditors from Boston. Nevertheless, Wellesley citizens let the effigy hang for an entire week before it was (supposedly) burned at the stake. (The Buttonwood tree was removed in 1904 for the construction of the Taylor Block, the large brick building on the south side of Washington Street where White Mountain Creamery is currently located.)

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Note that the map does not show the location of the Etherton farm buildings or Morton’s artificial tooth factory.

Unfortunately, there’s no happy ending to this story. After spending the years during the Civil War administering ether to wounded soldiers, Morton found himself living in poverty. He was even forced to pawn the medals he had won for his discovery two decades earlier. In 1868, Morton died of rheumatism while in New York City where he was responding publicly to an article supporting Dr. Jackson’s claim to the discovery of etherization.

It was soon thereafter that the Etherton estate fell into disrepair. In 1878, Horatio H. Hunnewell — the town’s greatest benefactor — bought the entire property and, three years later, began construction on the Town Hall building that currently occupies the former site of Etherton Cottage, which was moved to the eastern edge of the property on the site of Morton Field adjacent to the police station (almost opposite Morton Street). Another structure — a small dwelling lived in by Morton’s parents and located near the current driveway of Town Hall on Washington Street (adjacent to the duck pond) — was moved to 33 Cottage Street. The rest of the buildings on the Etherton estate were razed, leaving little, if any, evidence that Morton lived there at all. In 1919, Etherton Cottage was torn down.

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The house of Morton’s parents
Built in 1853 and moved to 33 Cottage Street in 1880
(Photo taken by Joshua Dorin in April 2013)

So why do I feel like Wellesley doesn’t appreciate Dr. William T.G. Morton enough? Although the town already has a few reminders of Morton’s presence in Wellesley — Morton Field, Morton Street/Circle, and a stone plaque at Town Hall — I think it can do more. Perhaps we could declare a ‘William Morton Day’ just as the Commonwealth did for Katharine Lee Bates — another famous Wellesley resident — on August 12, 1976. We’ve got six years until Morton’s 200th birthday. Let’s make it happen.

Sources:

  •  Wellesley Historical Commission files: 33 Cottage Street; Wellesley Town Hall
  • “An Artificial Tooth Factory” in The Family Economist, Volume 4 (1851)
  • “Etherton Cottage, and the Discoverer of Etherization” by Sarah Josepha Hale in Godey’s Lady’s Book (1853)
  • “Morton’s Piggery, Etherton Farm, West Needham, Mass.” in The Pennsylvania Farm Journal Devoted to Agriculture, Volume 3-4 (1853)
  • Trials of a Public Benefactor by Nathan Rice (1859)
  • “Dr. Morton’s Discovery of Anesthesia” by E.L. Snell in Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, Volume 48 (1894)
  • “The Discovery of Anaesthesia” by Elizabeth Whitman Morton in McClure’s Magazine, Volume 7 (1896)
  • Wellesley Townsman: 21 March 1919; 26 December 1919; 3 May 1929; 24 May 1929; 17 October 1946; 12 August 1976; 19 November 1981
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William Morton and Etherization (Part 1)

According to a survey conducted by the American Association of Endodontists, more than 80% of adults fear going to the dentist. I don’t blame them. No one enjoys having his or her teeth and gums scraped at with razor-sharp instruments. And God forbid, if you need a root canal or a tooth extracted. But at least we have novocain and nitrous oxide. For thousands of years, people had to suffer through medical procedures without any anesthesia at all. So you can imagine the relief when the first anesthetic that safely rendered patients unconscious before surgery was discovered in the mid-19th Century. Pain had finally been conquered.

So what does any of this have to do with Wellesley? A lot, in fact. The first person to demonstrate publicly the use of a general anesthetic — specifically, ether — was Dr. William T.G. Morton, a dentist who lived in Wellesley at the time of this discovery. The following post, however, mentions Wellesley only briefly and instead focuses almost exclusively on his discovery of ether as a general anesthetic. My next post will detail Morton’s subsequent pursuit of fame and recognition, of which an important theme is the development of his large Wellesley estate known as ‘Etherton’ on the current site of Town Hall.

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Dr. William T.G. Morton
Source: Bolton (1885)

But before we delve into the story about William Morton, let’s take a closer look at surgery before the existence of general anesthesia. Although various methods to alleviate pain existed — copious amounts of alcohol, large doses of laudanum (alcohol mixed with opium), a fist or blunt object to the head, and even hypnosis — many patients simply bit a stick or were held down by a group of men during operations, amputations, and dental work. Needless to say, each of these methods had either limited success or terrible side effects (or both).

Below is a passage that gives a good picture of what a typical surgery was like before the discovery of etherization [from Rice (1859)]:

“With a meek, imploring look, and the startled air of a fawn, as her modest gaze meets the bold eyes fixed upon her, she is brought into the amphitheatre crowded with men anxious to see the shedding of her blood, and laid upon the table. With a knowledge and merciful regard to the intensity of the agony which she is to suffer, opiates and stimulants have been freely given her, which, perhaps, at this last stage, are again repeated. She is cheered by kind words, and the information that it will soon be over, and she freed forever from what now afflicts her; she is enjoined to be calm, and to keep quiet and still, and with assistance at hand to hold her struggling form, the operation is commenced.

But of what avail are all her attempts at fortitude. At the first clear crisp cut of the scalpel, agonizing screams burst from her and with convulsive struggles, she endeavors to leap from the table. But the force is nigh. Strong men throw themselves upon her, and pinion her limbs. Shrieks upon shrieks make their horrible way into the stillness of the room, until the heart of the boldest sinks in his bosom like a lump of lead.

At length it is finished, and, prostrated with pain, weak from her exertions, and bruised by the violence used, she is borne from the amphitheatre to her bed in the wards, to recover from the shock by slow degrees.”

It’s no wonder there was great interest in finding a safe anesthetic that would result in the loss of consciousness. But centuries of experimentation had yielded no such substance — everything from hemlock to marijuana to chloroform failed. It wasn’t until William Morton arrived on the scene in the 1840s that the focus shifted to ether.

How Morton came up with the idea to use ether is a critical part of this story (and will be revisited in my next post). To make a long story short, Morton heard from a colleague — Dr. Charles T. Jackson — that liquid ether could be used as a local anesthetic by applying it topically to the teeth and gums. Jackson also mentioned that Harvard students had been inhaling ether-soaked handkerchiefs to get lightheaded. Putting two and two together, Morton then hypothesized that ether could be inhaled in large enough quantities to cause unconsciousness. (Why Jackson didn’t draw the same conclusion is puzzling. One can only assume that, unlike Morton, he wasn’t thinking about general anesthesia.)

For the next two years, Morton devoted his life to proving this hypothesis true. He even sold his dental practice in Boston so that he could experiment with ether full-time at his Wellesley workshop. At first, Morton conducted his tests solely on small animals — green worms, goldfish, and chickens, to name a few — but in most of these trials the subjects died. His first great success came when he experimented on his dog, but that was accompanied by a brief moment of terror. After inserting his water spaniel’s head into a jar filled with ether, the poor dog went limp, causing Morton to think he had killed his four-legged friend. For three minutes, Morton was overcome with grief. But then, the dog suddenly regained consciousness (but understandably would balk at all future experiments).

With this encouraging result, Morton then took a rather extreme next step — he began experimenting on himself. His first experiments, however, only resulted in drowsiness and terrible headaches. Morton guessed that the weak effect was probably because he had been using sulfuric ether. Perhaps pure ether would produce a stronger effect. He was right. After laying a handkerchief saturated with pure ether over his face and inhaling deeply for a few minutes, Morton lost consciousness. When he awoke several minutes later, despite having a mild paralysis that took some time to wear off, Morton appeared to be okay.

Now all he needed was a willing patient on which to try out this new anesthetic. Quite serendipitously, a young man named Eben H. Frost soon arrived at Morton’s office complaining of a toothache. Unable to handle the pain associated with the necessary tooth extraction, Frost consented to Morton’s suggestion to try ether. Just as he did to himself, Morton held a saturated handkerchief over the patient’s mouth and nose and waited for him to lose consciousness. Once Frost appeared to be asleep, Morton took his forceps, grabbed hold of the deeply-rooted bicuspid, applied some force and torque, and yanked the tooth out of its socket. The patient didn’t move or make a sound throughout the procedure. But he also didn’t awaken immediately once it was complete. Thinking that he may have killed a man, Morton splashed a glass of water onto Frost’s face. The patient then awoke, completely unable to recall the tooth extraction.

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Morton anesthetizing Eben H. Frost
Source: Wellcome Images

The final step was to show off this discovery to the world. Two weeks later, on October 16, 1846, Morton assisted with a surgery in an amphitheater (later renamed Ether Dome) at Massachusetts General Hospital as dozens of prominent doctors and surgeons observed. The surgery — the removal of a tumor on the patient’s jaw — was a success. At the young age of 27 years, Morton had become the first person to demonstrate the successful use of ether as a general anesthetic.

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The first public demonstration of ether as a general anesthetic
Source: McCrillis (1908)

This concludes the first post on Dr. William T.G. Morton. In the second post, I will discuss the aftermath of his discovery of etherization and his estate, Etherton. 

Sources:

  • “Etherton Cottage, and the Discoverer of Etherization” by Sarah Josepha Hale in Godey’s Lady’s Book (1853)
  • Trials of a Public Benefactor by Nathan Rice (1859)
  • A Catalogue of Artificial Teeth, Dental Materials, Instruments, Tools, Furntiure, etc. by Claudius Ash & Sons (1880)
  • How Success is Won by Sarah Knowles Bolton (1885)
  • ‘The Discovery of Anaesthesia’ by Elizabeth Whitman Morton in McClure’s Magazine, Volume 7 (1896)
  • The Conquest of Pain by Herbert O. McCrillis (1908)
  • Wellesley Townsman: 17 October 1946
  • American Association of Endodontists Website — Root Canal Awareness Week 2009 Press Release [accessed March 2013]