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.


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.


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.


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. 


  • “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]

One thought on “William Morton and Etherization (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: William Morton and Etherization (Part 2) | Wellesley History

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