Ether Day is the unpredictable story of America's first major scientific discovery the use of anesthesia told in an absorbing narrative that traces the dawn of modern surgery through the lives of three extraordinary men. Ironically, the "discovery" was really no discovery at all: Ether and nitrous oxide had been known for more than forty years to cause insensitivity to pain, yet, with names like "laughing gas," they were used almost solely for entertainment. Meanwhile, patients still underwent operations during which they saw, heard, and felt every cut the surgeon made. The image of a grim and grisly operating room, like the one in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, was in fact starkly accurate in portraying the conditions of surgery before anesthesia.
With hope for relief seemingly long gone, the breakthrough finally came about by means of a combination of coincidence and character, as a cunning Boston dentist crossed paths with an inventive colleague from Hartford and a brilliant Harvard-trained physician. William Morton, Horace Wells, and Charles Jackson: a con man, a dreamer, and an intellectual. Though Wells was crushed by derision when he tried to introduce anesthetics, Morton prevailed, with help from Jackson. The result was Ether Day, October 16, 1846, celebrated around the world. By that point, though, no honor was enough. Ether Day was not only the dawn of modern surgery, but the beginning of commercialized medicine as well, as Morton patented the discovery.
What followed was a battle so bitter that it sent all three men spiraling wildly out of control, at the same time that anesthetics began saving countless lives. Meticulously researched and masterfully written, Ether Day is a riveting look at one of history's most remarkable untold stories.
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About the Author
Julie M. Fenster, columnist for the Forbes magazine Audacity, has written articles for publications, including American Heritage, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. She is the author of the best-selling In the Words of Great Business Leaders, the comprehensive Everyday Money, and award-winning books on business history.
Read an Excerpt
On Friday, October 16, 1846, only one operation was scheduled at Massachusetts General Hospital.
That was not unusual: At Mass General, the third most active center of surgery in the country, operations averaged only about two per week from the 1820s through the mid–1840s. Operations were special events in that era'a long ordeal of an era that was to end on that very day.
The patient, a housepainter named Gilbert Abbott, had been admitted to Mass General earlier that week, expecting to have a large growth cut from the side of his neck. It was the most unremarkable of cases, except that its very predictability suited it to another purpose entirely. With the Gilbert Abbott case, the chief surgeon at the most renowned hospital in New England decided to give William T. G. Morton'a twenty-seven-year-old dentist whose salient characteristic was an excess of charm'a patient on whom to demonstrate a secret compound that promised painless surgery.
The day before the operation was to take place, Morton had received a letter from the hospital: a letter he had been hoping to receive."Dear Sir,” it began, "I write at the request of Dr. J. C. Warren to invite you to be present on Friday morning at ten o'clock, to administer to a patient, then to be operated on, the preparation which you have invented to diminish the sensibility to pain.” The letter was signed by the house surgeon at Mass General, C. F. Heywood, but the invitation had come from the hospital's chief of surgery, John Collins Warren, the veritable dean of surgery in the UnitedStates.
Morton's immediate reaction was fear'panic, in fact'that pain wouldn't be the only thing he'd kill on Friday morning. He had tested his preparation on a few dozen of his dental patients during tooth extractions, but he didn't know whether the same amount would be sufficient in a medical operation, whether more of it would kill the patient, or whether the apparatus he used had any flaw that might allow for an accidental poisoning. In fact Dr. Morton didn't know much as he held Heywood's note in his hands, except that Dr. John C. Warren would be watching his every move the next morning at ten.
And Dr. John C. Warren's salient characteristic was an utter absence of charm.Morton's secret concoction was made of exactly two ingredients: first, sulfuric ether, a common liquid compound with a sweet pungency; and second, oil of orange to disguise the smell of sulfuric ether'that's what made it a secret, and that's what made it Morton's. There are other compounds known as "ethers,” such as chloric ether (a rather sinister cousin to the sulfuric form). However, unadorned with a prefix, "ether” refers to sulfuric ether.
In early experiments Morton's dental patients had inhaled ether fumes from a cloth doused with the liquid. Morton soon replaced the cloth with a more elaborate inhaling apparatus that gave him greater control in two ways:over the delivery of fumes to the patient and, more to the point, over the commercial potential of his discovery in the medical world. In neither case did William Morton quite understand the thing that he was trying to control, but he had his apparatus with which to attack them both, and with it under his arm he went rushing into the street upon receiving his letter from Mass General.Morton's destination was the workroom of Joseph M. Wightman, a specialist in the manufacture of scientific instruments. A small industry in making scientific instruments had been launched in Boston about fifteen years before, in the early 1830s, with the arrival of Josiah Holbrook, an enthusiastic Yale graduate whose goal was to introduce science to the general populace. Idealistic but utterly practical, too, Holbrook recognized that science in any form requires paraphernalia'great, endless closets full of stuff'if it is to maintain a bridge back and forth between abstraction and actuality. Yet scientific equipment was prohibitively expensive when Josiah Holbrook arrived in Boston. Harvard University boasted whole arrays of the latest apparatus, but only a few hundred people had access to any of it.
Holbrook's aim was to bring the new sciences to the American people, not merely to its professors. A biographer summarized his achievements in that regard in a single sentence: "An orrery [a model of the solar system], for example, similar to the one for which Harvard had paid $5,000 in Paris, Holbrook manufactured and sold for ten dollars.” Holbrook was not the only man in the United States promoting science so widely, but on his arrival in Boston, he was among the very few. By the 1840s science education was a small industry, centered in Boston, and without it, a man such as William Morton might have had nowhere to turn for help in a rush on the day before Ether Day.
Even in repose William Morton could give the impression of a man in a rush, with his attention hopping from subject to subject. Where others had poise, he had energy. Morton was a strikingly attractive man, according to those who saw him in person. And judging by photographs and portraits, he did make a flashy impression, much like that of a leading man on the stage. He was well-proportioned, being on the tall side with a medium build that people were inclined to think was elegant. Morton had dark, wavy hair and intense blue eyes, features that were set off throughout most of his life by an extravagant moustache. He dressed extravagantly, too, in rich fabrics when plain ones were in style, loud silk scarves flowing out from under his lapels, and ornate buttons punctuating the cut of his coats. Overly optimistic and then pessimistic by turns, Morton dominated situations simply by presenting everything that had happened so much more starkly than did anyone else...
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
What a fascinating read!Years ago, I used to want to be an anesthesiologist¿ but then I lowered my sights to nursing school¿but still with some intent of becoming an anesthetist. (anesthesiologist = doctor ; anesthetist = specially trained technician)Eventually I decided that the medical field was NOT at all for me, yet I still have a strong interest in many things medical¿including, certainly, anesthesia.This book supports the old saying that life is stranger than fiction. The events leading to and following the discovery of the anesthetic qualities of nitrous oxide and sulfuric ether are quite boggling¿one of which is the fact that people were having fun at `gas parties¿ and `ether frolics¿ for years while patients, without anesthesia, screamed in horror as a limb was amputated or a tumor cut from living, feeling tissue.Morton, Wells, and Jackson¿s stories are sad ones, really¿ especially, in my opinion, Wells¿, for he seemed the best humanitarian of that lot. Morton was driven by greed, pure and simple. Jackson, perhaps something in between.I try to pick up a nonfiction book now and then to add in with all the fiction I read, and this most recent bit of nonfiction indulgence was both fascinating and informative.
Who knew that the popular use of ether as an anesthetic would be a story of such tragic characters whose lives would have so much pain because of that which brought so much relief to others? Ether in surgery was demonstrated for the first time in 1846 - it quickly became standard in surgery, but it was not without struggle.
I found most of the book seemed to consist of a description as to who first decided to use ether as an anaesthetic. I found this a trifle boring and confusing and did not finish reading the book.
All of us have reason to thank painless surgery whether it is for a cavity or a tonsilectomy. Until now I never knew how lucky I was that these people invented ether. I enjoyed the way Fenster blended the characters of the narrative into the facts. Her witty characterizations and unique unsights were inspired. I intend to find everything else this author has written and order it.
Just another example of a non scientist (as it seems by her writing) writing about a very scientific event. I'll admit, it is a good story, but she should read up on Chemistry nomenclature. Other than that, its a good book.