Elizabeth Egloff

Meet the Artist – Elizabeth Egloff

Beyond the Ether Dome

By Shirley Fishman, Dramaturg, La Jolla Playhouse

Playwright Elizabeth Egloff talks about two journeys: the search for a cure for pain and her own discovery of a fascinating medical history that reverberates for our own time.

Playwright Elizabeth Egloff
Playwright Elizabeth Egloff

Shirley Fishman:  What inspired you to write a play about the circumstances of the discovery of anesthesia?  

Elizabeth Egloff: I got a phone call from Michael Wilson in the summer of 2005.  He was the Artistic Director of Hartford Stage at the time, and the theatre received a grant from the state of Connecticut to commission a play inspired by local historical events.  One day while he was walking in Hartford’s Bushnell Park he came upon a statue of Horace Wells.  He asked a friend who he was. That’s when the idea for the play started.    

He talked to me about writing a play about Horace Wells, a dentist in Hartford who had something to do with the discovery of ether — that he was robbed of the credit by his student and that nobody knows what really happened. He thought that the story might be a great idea for a play.  

SF: Why did Michael think you would be the right person to write this story?

EE: He knew that I had grown up in Farmington, CT, where Morton’s wife lived before they married.  I went to school in West Hartford and college in Hartford.  And I was steeped in the Hartford view of the world and of itself.  

I was thrilled to take it on — I love plays about history and politics.  

As I researched, I became hypnotized by the story of the four men who were at the center of the ether controversy: Horace Wells, William Morton, Dr. Charles T. Jackson and Dr. John C. Warren who were esteemed surgeons at Massachusetts General Hospital, one of a handful of respected medical schools in the country.  

Wells had been investigating ways to alleviate his patients’ suffering during dental surgery.  He witnessed a man who injured himself after inhaling laughing gas.  When he saw that the man felt no pain, he wondered if the gas could be used on his patients.  He successfully experimented with the gas, and Morton suggested he demonstrate the procedure in Mass General’s operating theatre.  The stakes for Wells’ demonstration in the hospital’s dome were very high.  When it failed, it launched a medical competition that would change history and the destinies of those four men.  

Jackson claimed he had given Morton a vial of sulphuric ether so that he could painlessly extract his wife’s tooth.  Morton took both Wells’ and Jackson’s ideas and climbed his way into Mass General’s dome and into the medical history books.  Wells, a sensitive idealist, was irreparably wounded by Morton’s betrayal and descended into depression and addiction. Some believed Wells was the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

At a certain point, I realized that there were inconsistencies; the story was different depending on whose version I read.  But the brutal fact remained that Morton deserved the credit — he was the one who picked up the ball when no one else did and took it all the way into the end zone.  Harvard Medical School and Mass General’s library accounts have always credited Morton, but no mention is made about his scandalous past.  Jackson receives some credit for helping Morton with research. Their accounts don’t mention Wells.  After the 2001 publication of Julie M. Fenster’s book, Ether Day, Harvard began to include small references to Wells, so he’s no longer invisible. 

Ether-SurgerySF: It’s an epic story and incredibly dramatic.  How did you create a play from this factual story? 

EE:  In order to put it on stage, I needed to decide whose story it was.  After many drafts, it finally came to me that it’s Horace’s story; his struggle and downfall frames the play.  There were so many people involved, I had to compress a number of Mass General doctors into Drs. Haywood, Bigelow and Gould.  These three men, along with Jackson, became the chorus of the play. The factual events occurred between 1845–1870, but I collapsed the story, into one year.  The arc of the story hasn’t changed since my first draft.

SF: Hartford Stage commissioned the play, but the first production was at the Alley Theatre in Houston. How did that come about?

EE: I didn’t actually have a first draft of the play until 2008.  We did a reading in New York in December 2010.  Gregory Boyd, Artistic Director of The Alley in Houston, Texas, came to see it.  After the reading, he stopped me in the hallway and said he wanted to produce the play.  It opened at the Alley the following September. 

SF: Were you hoping for a production at another theatre after the play closed at the Alley?

EE: The economic reality of the American theatre is that Ether Dome, with 15 actors and a production of size, is a huge investment for a theatre.  When Christopher Ashley decided he wanted to produce the play, he reached out to Hartford Stage and Boston’s Huntington Theatre, and they decided co-produce the play.  It’s great — so much of that story happened in Hartford and Boston — it’s a natural fit.  

SF: What resonance does the play have for contemporary audiences?  

The Ether Dome at Massachusetts General Hospital
The Ether Dome at Massachusetts General Hospital

EE: It’s not just a story about who discovered ether.  It’s about the values of American society in the 1840s and their attitudes toward medicine, science, religion and human suffering.  Until ether was discovered, doctors used herbs, tinctures and ointments they bought from liquor stores.  Doctors prescribed remedies like alcohol or laudanum, but couldn’t find the right level of sedation or consistency to insure pain relief.  By the 1800s, speed was the only relief from pain. Doctors were going through surgery as fast as they could; a leg could be amputated in 2.5 minutes.  The problem was that patients could go into shock, and more than half the time they died.  Surgery was so abhorrent, patients would rather commit suicide than submit to a medical or dental procedure.  If ether had not been discovered, and Morton hadn’t found a way to administer it, who knows how long it would have taken for us to develop painless surgery. 

When Morton found a way to administer ether, he wanted to charge money for it. At the time, to ask a patient to pay for pain relief went against everything that medical establishment stood for.  Today, the idea of providing medicine for free is unheard of.  The issue of doctors, drug medicine and the treatment of patients continues to be controversial, and the battle for credit among researchers, hospitals and pharmaceutical companies is still going on. 

Ether Dome is also the story of men with tremendous hubris.  Despite their pursuit of recognition for their contributions to the discovery of anesthesia, Warren, Wells, Jackson and Morton were all brought down by the historic events of October 16, 1846.  But they all played their part to bring medicine into the modern age.