Who’s Who of Boston and Hartford, 1846
By Aurelia Clunie, Education Associate for Student Audiences, and Alexandra Truppi, Education Manager for Curriculum at The Huntington Theatre
Hartford Dentistry and the First Anesthesia Experiment
Dr. Horace Wells (1815-1848) was a dentist with a practice on Main Street in Hartford, CT. On December 10, 1844, he attended a presentation on laughing gas by Gardner Q. Colton, and considered the possibility of using the substance to operate without pain. On December 11, Wells underwent the extraction of one of his own teeth while under nitrous oxide induced anesthesia. While demonstrating the use of nitrous oxide at Harvard Medical School in 1845, the patient woke up and Wells was disgraced in front of Boston’s dominant medical community. Wells ultimately became addicted to chloroform, and after throwing acid on two prostitutes in New York City, was imprisoned at Tombs prison. Wells committed suicide by inhaling chloroform and cutting an artery in his leg. He was recognized post-mortem by the American Medical Association as the discoverer of anesthesia. His discovery of anesthesia and fall from grace are depicted in Ether Dome.
William Thomas Green Morton (1819 – 1868) was best known for introducing sulfuric ether to the medical community. Morton apprenticed Dr. Horace Wells and Dr. Charles Jackson, both of whom shared with him the anesthetic properties of nitrous oxide and sulfuric ether, respectively. Morton claimed to have attended Baltimore Dental College, but never graduated from dental college or medical school. In 1843, he married Elizabeth Whitman on the condition from her father that he study medicine. On October 16, 1846, Morton administered ether in the first recorded anesthetized surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital. Morton kept the substance secret and attempted to patent it under the name “Letheon.” While his patent was revoked, Morton appealed multiple times to the U.S. Congress for compensation and sole recognition as anesthesia’s discoverer. Morton refused medicine’s prestigious Montyon Prize, which in 1850, was awarded to him and Charles Jackson jointly. In 1852, he received an honorary degree in medicine from Baltimore’s Washington University.
Faith Trumbull Wadsworth (1769-1846) was the niece of John Trumbull, the famous Revolutionary War painter. She married Daniel Wadsworth, a wealthy Hartford philanthropist, in 1794. Horace Wells extracts her tooth in the first scene of Ether Dome.
Gardner Q. Colton (1814-1898) was a Vermont native who, in 1844 at New York’s Broadway Tabernacle, debuted his “Grand Exhibition,” demonstrating the effects of inhaling nitrous oxide gas. Initially a medical student struggling to pay tuition, Colton seized the opportunity to tour his successful “Grand Exhibition” on the New England lecture circuit. In the mid-1800s, lecturing was a popular form of entertainment and public education. Horace Wells attends Colton’s lecture in Ether Dome.
Other Influential Hartfordites of the Mid-19th Century
Dr. John M. Riggs (1811-1885) was a dentist practicing in Hartford, CT. A former apprentice to Horace Wells, Riggs discovered “Riggs disease” a form of gum disease and is known as the father of modern periodontics. John M. Riggs performed the initial anesthetized tooth extraction on Horace Wells in December 1844.
Daniel Wadsworth (1771-1848) was a wealthy philanthropist who founded America’s first public art museum, the Wadsworth Athenaeum, in 1842. He collected works by famous artists including history paintings by John Trumbull and Hudson River School landscapes by Thomas Cole.
John Trumbull (1756-1843) was a 1773 Harvard graduate and served in the Revolutionary War as General Washington’s aide. Trumbull studied painting in London with Benjamin West and returned to the United States as a celebrated painter. Known for his depictions of the Revolutionary War, Trumbull was commissioned by Congress to paint works in the Capitol’s rotunda.
Members of Dr. Warren’s Thursday Night Club
Dr. John Collins Warren (1778-1856) was a founding member of Massachusetts General Hospital and its first Chief Surgeon. He also founded the New England Journal of Medicine, was the first Dean of Harvard Medical School, and served as the third president of the American Medical Association. He performed the first surgery to use ether as an anesthetic, depicted as the central event of Elizabeth Egloff’s play, Ether Dome.
Dr. Charles Jackson (1805-1880) was a physician, mineralogist, and geologist. He is remembered for his involvement in multiple conflicts over scientific discoveries that were credited to others but for which he claimed responsibility, including the low explosive material known as guncotton, the telegraph, and the digestive actions of the stomach. His conflict with William Morton over the discovery of the anesthetic uses of ether is depicted in Ether Dome.
Dr. Louis Agassiz (1807-1873) was a biologist and geologist who served as a professor of zoology and geology at Harvard University. Agassiz founded the university’s Museum of Comparative Zoology and made major contributions to the related fields of ichthyology and glaciology. Agassiz’s scientific reputation has been somewhat tainted, however, by his writings on polygenism (a theory that posits that the human races grew from different origins) and his resistance to Darwin’s theory of evolution.
Dr. Henry Jacob Bigelow (1818-1890) was a surgeon and professor at Harvard University. In November 1846, the New England Journal of Medicine published an article by Bigelow titled “Insensibility During Surgical Operations Produced by Inhalation” in which he detailed the operation performed by Dr. Warren with the help of ether administered by William Morton. For the publication’s 200th anniversary in 2012, readers voted Bigelow’s article the most important in the journal’s history.
Dr. Augustus Gould (1805-1866) was a physician as well as a professor of botany and zoology at Harvard University. Gould served as president of the Massachusetts Medical Society but was also known for his work in the field of conchology, the study of mollusks. He co-authored Principles of Zoology with Dr. Louis Agassiz.
Dr. George Hayward (1791-1863) performed the second public surgical procedure and the first amputation with the aid of ether anesthetic.
Dr. George Parkman (1790-1849) was a member of one of Boston’s wealthiest families and a Harvard University graduate who received his medical degree at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. Parkman worked with Dr. John Collins Warren on the publication of the New England Journal of Medicine and was a proponent of humane methods of psychiatric treatment. He was also known for his many real estate dealings in Boston.
Other Influential Bostonians of the Mid-19th Century
Daniel Webster (1782-1852) represented Massachusetts in the United States House of Representatives and Senate, and served as Secretary of State under Presidents William Henry Harrison and Millard Fillmore. In Ether Dome, William Morton and his wife, Lizzie, live next door to then-Senator Webster.
Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) was an author, poet, and historian known for his fierce opposition to slavery and his writings on natural history and philosophy.
Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894) was a Cambridge, Massachusetts-born physician who graduated from Harvard but is remembered more for his poetry and other literary writings, many of which used Boston as its subject matter. While serving as a professor of anatomy and physiology at Dartmouth College, Holmes coined the term “anesthesia,” meaning “lack of sensation,” in a letter to William Morton.
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) was an essayist, poet, and leading Transcendentalist who mentored fellow writer, Henry David Thoreau. A Boston native, Emerson attended Boston Latin School and Harvard University. After graduating from Harvard Divinity School, he briefly served as pastor of Boston’s Second Church, was a member of the Boston School Committee, and served as chaplain to the Massachusetts state legislature before leaving the clergy. Emerson spent the majority of the remainder of his career as a traveling lecturer.