Wiliyam Morton

Wiliyam Morton

The dentist who invented anesthesia
Date of Birth: 09.08.1819
Country: USA

Biography of William Morton

William Thomas Green Morton was an American dentist and surgeon who invented anesthesia. Although his name may not be well-known to many readers, he was a remarkable individual in the history of medicine, as he is credited with the primary achievement of introducing anesthesia in surgery. Only a few discoveries, such as the use of anesthesia, have been highly valued by humanity. Only a few discoveries have brought such profound changes to the conditions of its existence. It is terrifying to imagine the horror of surgery in those times when patients remained conscious while their bones were being sawed. The ability to relieve people of such pain is undoubtedly one of the greatest gifts that man has given to his fellow beings.

Wiliyam Morton

Morton was born in 1819 in Charlton, Massachusetts. In his youth, he studied at the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery and began his practice in 1842. From 1842 to 1843, Morton worked in partnership with Horace Wells. This dentist was slightly older than Morton and was interested in anesthesia. However, their partnership was not profitable and ended in late 1843. A year later, Wells started experimenting with nitrous oxide ("laughing gas") as an anesthetic and was able to effectively use it in his dental practice in Hartford, Connecticut. Unfortunately, Wells' public demonstration of the use of anesthesia in Boston ended in failure.

In his dental practice, Morton specialized in prosthetic dentistry. To do this well, it was necessary to remove the roots of old teeth. Such removal in the time prior to the invention of anesthesia was very painful, and the need for some method of anesthesia became evident. Morton reasoned that nitrous oxide was not effective enough for his purposes and began to explore other substances.

Charles T. Jackson, a recognized physician and scientist whom Morton personally knew, suggested that he use ether. The anesthetic properties of this substance were discovered over three hundred years ago by Paracelsus, a famous Swiss physicist and alchemist. One or two similar reports were published in the first half of the nineteenth century. However, Jackson and others who wrote about ether never used it in surgical operations. The mention of ether seemed like a promising opportunity to Morton, and he began to experiment with it - first on animals (including his dog) and then on himself. Finally, on September 30, 1846, a great opportunity arose to test ether on a patient. A man named Eben Frost entered Morton's office, suffering from terrible toothache, and wished to use anything to alleviate the pain during extraction. The dentist used ether and removed the painful tooth. When Frost regained consciousness, he said that he felt no pain. It was hard to expect a better result. Success, fame, and wealth awaited Morton.

Although the operation took place in the presence of witnesses, and the Boston newspapers reported on it the next day, the event did not attract much attention. It became clear that a more dramatic demonstration was needed. Morton turned to Dr. John C. Warren, the chief surgeon of the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, requesting the opportunity to give a practical demonstration of his pain-relieving method to a group of doctors. Dr. Warren agreed, and the demonstration was scheduled at the hospital. On October 16, 1846, before a significant audience of doctors and medical students, Morton anesthetized a patient named Gilbert Abbott with ether, and then Dr. Warren removed a tumor from Abbott's neck. Anesthesia fully demonstrated its effectiveness, and the demonstration was a resounding success. This demonstration was quickly covered in many newspapers and became the main impetus for the widespread use of anesthesia in surgical operations in the following years.

A few days after Abbott's operation, Morton and Jackson filed an application for a patent. Although the patent was issued to them within a month, it was not without a series of battles for priority. Morton's claim that he was primarily responsible for the introduction of anesthesia was contested by several individuals, especially Jackson. Furthermore, the hope that the innovation would make him wealthy did not come true. Most doctors and hospitals that used anesthesia were not willing to pay any royalties. The costs of the legal process and the fight for priority soon consumed all the money Morton received for his invention. Disheartened and exhausted, he died in 1868 in New York. He was not yet forty-nine years old.

The benefits of anesthesia in dentistry and major surgery are evident. However, when evaluating the overall importance of Morton's work, it is difficult to determine how to share the credit for the introduction of anesthesia among him and other individuals who worked on this problem. Among these "others," the main figures should be highlighted: Horace Wells, Charles Jackson, and Crawford W. Long, a doctor from Georgia. Considering all the facts, it is clear that Morton's contribution is much more significant compared to the others, and I have placed his name on the list according to his merits. Indeed, Horace Wells began using anesthesia in his dental practice almost two years before Morton's successful use of ether. However, Wells' anesthesia - nitrous oxide - did not and could not revolutionize surgery. Despite some positive properties, nitrous oxide is simply not potent enough to be used in major surgery. (In modern times, nitrous oxide is used in combination with other drugs and sometimes in dental treatment.) On the other hand, ether is incredibly effective and versatile from a chemical standpoint. It actually revolutionized surgery.

Today, in most cases, more potent anesthesia agents than ether can be used, but for almost a century after its introduction, it remained the most widely used means of anesthesia. Despite the drawbacks of ether (it is flammable, and nausea is a common side effect of its use), it remains the most versatile anesthesia agent of all time. It is easy to transport and use. But most importantly, it combines safety and power.

Crawford W. Long (1815-1878) was a doctor from Georgia who used ether in surgical operations as early as 1842, four years before Morton's demonstration. However, he did not publish the results of his work until 1849. By that time, after Morton's demonstration, the beneficial use of ether in surgery was already well known throughout the medical world. As a result, Long's work benefited only a handful of patients, while Morton's invention improved the lives of people worldwide.

Charles Jackson suggested to Morton the use of ether and provided valuable advice on how to apply it to patients. On the other hand, he himself never used it during operations and never attempted to inform the medical world about his knowledge of ether until Morton's successful demonstration. It was Morton, not Jackson, who risked his reputation and decided on a public anesthesia demonstration. If Gilbert Abbott had died on the operating table, it is highly unlikely that Charles T. Jackson would have taken responsibility for that demonstration.

So where should William Morton stand on this list? A good comparison can be made between him and Joseph Lister. Both were medical professionals who became famous for introducing a new technique or procedure that revolutionized surgery and obstetrics. Their innovations are obvious in retrospect. Neither of them was actually the first to use the technique or procedure that gained recognition and popularity thanks to their efforts. And each of them had to share the credit for their innovation with other individuals. I ranked Morton above Lister primarily because the use of anesthesia seems to me a more important discovery than the advent of antiseptic surgery. Furthermore, some modern antibiotics can replace antiseptics during surgery. Without anesthesia, however, complex or prolonged operations would simply be impossible, and even simple operations were often avoided until it was too late.

The public demonstration of practical application that Morton organized on the morning of October 1846 is one of the great milestones in human history. Perhaps nothing reflects Morton's achievements better than the inscription on his monument:
"William T. Morton
The Inventor and Revealer of Anesthesia,
who by taking away and destroying pain,
has made surgery throughout all time
a triumph of science over suffering."