Monday, December 13, 2004

Father of anesthesia


Was he given credit?

The Man Who Defied Pain For Some, Treatment Of Horace Wells, Anesthesia Pioneer, Still Hits A Nerve

December 11, 2004 By WILLIAM HATHAWAY, Courant Staff Writer

On Dec. 11, 1844, Horace Wells sat in the dentist chair in his office at Main and Asylum streets in Hartford, inhaled nitrous oxide gas, and watched as a fellow dentist pulled out his troublesome wisdom tooth.

Wells felt no pain.

At that very moment, his supporters insist, Wells should have assured himself of an exalted place in medical history as the discoverer of anesthesia - one of the greatest boons ever bestowed upon patients, doctors, surgeons and dentists.

"The procedure was to medicine what the Wright Brothers' flight was to transportation," said Dr. William A. MacDonnell, a dental anesthesiologist and past president of the Horace Wells Club, a group of 40 dentists and anesthesiologists.

Instead, a few years later, Wells, disgraced and penniless, lay bleeding to death in a New York jail cell. And despite periodic efforts during the past 16 decades to resurrect his claim to fame, Wells remains mostly forgotten to all but a few intensely loyal devotees in Hartford.

"We are in a campaign to change that," said Diane Neumann Hernsdorf, director of the Hartford Medical Society.

It won't be easy to gain recognition for Wells as the father of anesthesiology.A disastrous public demonstration of nitrous oxide in Boston, a competing claim by an ungrateful and deadbeat student of Wells' who successfully employed ether during surgery in 1846, a powerful Boston medical and media establishment that trumpeted the ether demonstration, and Wells' own suicide all have conspired to rob the idealistic Hartford dentist of his due, his supporters claim.

And it is a public relations nightmare to preach the virtues of a man who under the influence of chloroform splashed acid on New York prostitutes.

Wells' fall was so spectacular, sordid and mysterious that some historians speculate he was the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson's "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde."

"It is a very sad story," said Hernsdorf.

Dueling DiscoveriesEssays and history books agree on the basic facts of Wells' story. They just tend to be interpreted differently in Boston and Hartford.

When Wells had his wisdom tooth pulled he was 29 years old and counted some of Hartford's social elite as both friends and patients at his thriving Main Street practice. By all accounts, he was a gentleman's gentleman, sensitive, compassionate and possessed by a restless intelligence.

On the evening of Dec. 10, 1844, Wells and his wife, Elizabeth, attended a demonstration of the exhilarating effects of nitrous oxide by Gardner Quincy Colton at Union Hall on Main Street.

That nitrous oxide gas would loosen the inhibitions of even the most reserved Victorian had been known for decades. Itinerant "doctors" would travel from city to city and exhibit the effects of the gas, which invariably provoked outlandish displays of behavior by well-known locals. One of the traveling gas dealers was young Sam Colt, who was attempting to fund the manufacture of his new revolver.

In 1800, nitrous oxide's potential as an anesthetic was noted briefly toward the end of a booklong treatise on the gas written by British chemist Sir Humphry Davy. But for four decades, apparently no one thought to try nitrous oxide to dull pain during a medical procedure.

During the Union Hall gas frolic, Wells saw a man fall and receive serious scrapes and bruises. Wells noted the man showed no signs of pain. Less than 15 hours later, his colleague John Riggs, who later would become Mark Twain's dentist, gave him a dose of nitrous oxide and removed his wisdom tooth.

Over the next few weeks, Wells experimented with both nitrous oxide and ether as anesthetics on his dental patients and told many local dentists of his discovery. In a historic irony, he rejected ether as too potent and potentially dangerous for his dental patients.About six weeks later, he traveled to Boston to demonstrate his anesthetic to the medical establishment there.

What happened that late January day is still unclear. Perhaps the nitrous oxide he procured in Boston was of a different quality from what he had used in Hartford. Perhaps he administered too little to his patient. But for whatever reason, with the Brahmins of Boston medicine watching closely, his dental subject cried out, apparently in pain.

The crowd jeered and called Wells a humbug.

Wells never recovered from the setback. He traveled to Paris and apparently talked about nitrous oxide to medical professionals there. Back in the United States, he heard about another exhibition of anesthesia in Boston. On Oct. 16, 1846, now celebrated annually as Ether Day at Harvard Medical School, 27-year-old William T. G. Morton removed the tumor from the neck of a man fully sedated with ether.

Morton, backed by the Boston establishment, claimed for himself the title of the discoverer of anesthesia. When talking to Wells supporters, it is unclear whether they are more upset that their man was denied credit for the discovery of anesthesia or that the credit went to Morton, who historical record suggests was something of a scoundrel. Morton was once Wells' student but seems to have stiffed his mentor for at least $100 worth of fees and supplies. Despite that, Wells helped Morton set up a practice in Farmington.

According to some historians, Morton must have known of his mentor's efforts to develop an anesthesia, although he would later deny that the idea came from Wells. Especially irksome to Wells' supporters is that Morton also had the temerity to offer Wells what would be the modern-day equivalent of an ether franchise.

Wells thought that it was wrong to try to patent anesthesia, MacDonnell said: "He said it should be free as the air we breathe."

`My Brain Is On Fire'It is difficult to square the idealistic, innovating and compassionate Wells, beloved of Hartford society, and the Wells who found himself wandering around the streets of the Tombs section of New York City in a gas-induced stupor in January 1848.

In one of his suicide notes, Wells, who had just turned 33, admitted that he threw acid on the clothes of prostitutes while under the influence of chloroform and expressed his deep sense of shame.

"I cannot proceed, my hand is too unsteady, and my whole frame is convulsed in agony," Wells wrote.

"My brain is on fire."

In the jail cell, near the razor Wells used to sever the femoral artery in his left thigh, police also found an empty bottle of chloroform.

MacDonnell suspects Wells may have had bipolar disorder, with periods of mania alternating with depression, made worse by his abuse of his gases. In any event, Wells was no longer alive and able to defend his claim to be the father of anesthesia, while Morton continued to push his own claim to fame in the court of public opinion.

A Boston chemist who supplied Morton the ether, Charles Jackson, would also claim credit for the discovery. So would Dr. Crawford Long of Georgia, who claimed that he used ether during a surgery in 1842, two years before Wells used nitrous oxide. Most historians, however, discount Long's claim because he never told his peers about its potential as anesthesia.

Wells' claim has always run into two unfortunate facts. Morton's demonstration worked. Wells' did not. And it was ether, not nitrous oxide, that launched the anesthetic era in medical surgery.

In the past 160 years, historians have periodically revisited the subject and some have supported Wells' claim of being the first to demonstrate an anesthetic.

Yet every year, Harvard holds its Ether Day celebrations and hundreds of medical students hear Morton's story. Every year Dec. 11 passes unnoticed in Hartford, with the exception of the 40 members of the Horace Wells Club who meet for their annual dinner.

"A Boston Globe reporter once asked me, `Why did you sit back and play second fiddle all these years?'" Hernsdorf said.

There have always been a handful of people who have tried to shoehorn Wells into the history books and into the public consciousness. People who knew Wells helped get a statue of him erected in Bushnell Park in 1875. About the same time there was a debate in Congress about who deserved credit for the discovery of anesthesia, but the question was unresolved.

In downtown Hartford, for more than 100 years a small plaque on Asylum Street, today near Burger King, has marked the location of Wells' former dental office. But Hernsdorf doubts that even people who catch the bus there every day have read it.

Elvis Presley Instead

About 20 years ago, Hernsdorf's predecessor, Dr. Leonard Menczer, former curator of the Hartford medical and dental museum that now bears his name, launched a campaign to get Wells on a postage stamp commemorating the 150th anniversary of the extraction of Wells' wisdom tooth. For 10 years, Menczer traveled the country and told anyone who would listen the story of Horace Wells.

Menczer died in 1994, mercifully before the U.S. Postal Service granted that year's postage stamp honor to Elvis Presley.

But MacDonnell is not about to give up. He and other volunteers successfully raised about $55,000 to restore Wells' headstone in Hartford's Cedar Hill Cemetery.

MacDonnell said he isn't done.

"My goal is to have everyone in Hartford, every school kid in Connecticut, know who Horace Wells was," MacDonnell said.

For now, people who want to honor his memory can visit the statue in Bushnell Park, the plaque on Asylum Street or the Menczer Museum at the Hartford Medical Society building on Scarborough Street. And at Cedar Hill, Wells' newly restored headstone is adorned by the faces of angels.

On one side, the headstone reads, "I Sleep to Awaken."

On the other, "I Awaken to Glory."

The above came from the Hartford Courant website.

Fair use of copyrighted material

* * * *

Telling your Attorney to go fuck himself- PRICELESS

A Justice System really has to be corrupt and out of hand for something to actually change

* * * *

Can cops rape, rob, beat, and murder with immunity?

Are their unnamed factions in the US, similar to the KKK?

With rogue judges and their minions, police officers, do we really live in a Democracy? (post)

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Blogger The Stark Raving Viking said...

The links no longer work

Monday, October 13, 2008 12:57:00 PM  

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