Today in Technology History

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October 16

Before anesthesia, surgery was an agonizing experience. Although doctors discovered a few techniques that provided some relief, most surgeons had to hire strong men to restrain patients from bucking.

Dr. William Thomas Green Morton (1819-1868)Most of the credit for successful surgical anesthesia belongs to William Thomas Green Morton (1819-1868). He was a dentist studying medicine in Boston when he began experimenting with ether. Morton tried ether on animals (to the disgust of his wife) and on himself. He then tested it on one of his patients during a tooth extraction. After that success, Morton arranged for a public demonstration at the Massachusetts General Hospital. On October 16, 1846, a patient (Gilbert Abbott) with a tumor on his jaw would come under the knife of a renowned surgeon, Dr. John Warren. Morton would administer ether before the operation.

The operation was to be held in an indoor amphitheater at the hospital, with an audience of skeptical medical experts. When the appointed hour arrived, Morton was not there -- he was making last-minute adjustments to the ether inhaler. (Click to enlarge.) A picture of the surgery. Morton is standing above the patient, administering ether. The surgeon was sarcastically remarking on the delay when Morton appeared. "Well, sir, your patient is ready," said the surgeon.

Morton quietly administered the ether. After the patient fell asleep, Morton turned to the surgeon and said, "Dr. Warren, your patient is ready."

The surgery proceeded in silence, and the patient did not struggle -- or react at all. As Dr. Warren finished his work he said, "Gentlemen, this is no humbug."

Within a year, ether was used in most surgeries in America and England, despite opposition from some medical and religious critics. The room where the historic surgery was held is now known as the "Ether Dome."

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