Doctor From Region is Father of Anesthesia

On a picturesque country road in Charlton, Mass., stands a large, antique Georgian house. It is two stories, with imposing chimneys and a long ell attached to one side.

The house speaks to an era when wood fires heated homes and provided hearth-cooked meals. The ell would have been filled with farm implements and perhaps stalls for horses or oxen, the power needed for plowing adjacent fields long before the advent of gasoline-powered tractors.

I was in the area to visit Fay Mountain Farm, a property of 65 acres owned and maintained by the town of Charlton. The old house sits across the street from the farm, and I stood to admire it from the road. Then, I noticed the sign indicating the house had been the boyhood home of none other than Dr. William Morton, an important figure in medical history.

I wonder who among the readers of this column today has ever undergone surgery of some kind? Perhaps you had dental surgery to remove wisdom teeth, or your appendix or tonsils were removed. If you have ever had to go under general anesthesia for surgery, then you have Morton — born right here in The Last Green Valley — to thank. Morton was an early pioneer of the use of ether for relieving surgical pain by rendering the patient unconscious.

Today, there are other compounds to elicit a state of general anesthesia, or a medically induced coma, to allow medical procedures that would be otherwise too painful and intolerable for an awake patient. It was Morton’s work, as well as others in the mid-19th century who first experimented with ether, that started the practice now essential to all surgeries. However, it was Morton who actively developed ether-administering devices and who is credited with first administering it successfully in surgery.

Morton is one of several medical pioneers from The Last Green Valley who are included in TLGV’s publication Notable and Notorious: Historically interesting people from The Last Green Valley. Here are excerpts of his story from that publication:

“Morton was born in Charlton, Mass., in 1819, and educated at nearby Leicester Academy and Northfield Academy. An unremarkable student, he tried various professions to find his niche – clerk, printer and salesman. None turned out to be his calling.

In 1840, Morton entered the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery, the first of its kind in the world. He left before graduating and became the partner of Hartford dentist Horace Wells. Unfortunately, that relationship lasted only six months.

Morton enrolled in the Harvard Medical School, once again failing to graduate. He conducted a dental practice in Boston without credentials. However, he excelled at developing new ideas for the field. He introduced a new kind of solder that would allow false teeth to be fastened to gold plates. He experimented with opium, stimulants, and even hypnosis to find a better method of extracting the roots of diseased teeth.

He was introduced to ether after attending a lecture by Professor Charles Jackson, although no one had connected relieving pain via unconsciousness. After trying it out on himself, Morton administered ether to a patient on Sept. 30, 1846, with great success. The breakthrough made the newspapers and a public performance of this revolutionary advance was scheduled at Massachusetts General Hospital.

The audience was justifiably skeptical, but was truly amazed when he administered ether for a pain-free surgery on the patient. One would think that this act would successfully clinch Morton’s place in dental and medical history.

He secured a patent for ether administration and the international community recognized him with awards. He made his method available for free to charitable institutions. However, he was unsuccessful in convincing Congress and President Franklin Pierce to recognize his rights to the profits derived from his discovery.

He died quite suddenly of a brain hemorrhage at the young age of 48.”

Morton’s life and work became the subject of a 1944 Paramount Pictures film “The Great Moment,” which was based on the 1940 book “Triumph Over Pain,” by Rene Fulop-Miller. Also, the first use of ether as an anesthetic is commemorated in the “Ether Monument” in the Boston Public Garden.

I for one will be thinking of Morton when I undergo general anesthesiology later this week for relatively minor surgery. Before I drift off to anesthetic-induced sleep, I’ll make sure my surgeon knows about Dr. William Morton of Charlton and his important role in the field of medicine.

We live in a beautiful place called The Last Green Valley. Our National Heritage Corridor was home to many fascinating people who left their mark on the region, the country and the world. One such person is Dr. William Morton. I hope you’ll join me and others as we celebrate and tell the many stories that make our home such an interesting place to live and work.

Bill Reid is chief ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for more than 35 years. He can be reached at bill@tlgv.org.