Ether: Early Anesthesia and Its First Uses

By the late 1830s, public gatherings referred to as “ether frolics” were being held by wandering lecturers. These gatherings involved audience members inhaling diethyl ether, who then entertained audience members by demonstrating the mind-altering properties of these agents. The idea of “ether frolics” originated with Humphry Davy, who had experimented with an ether like substance known as nitrous oxide. Tales of Davy’s experiments were widely publicized and become well-known throughout the northeastern United States and attendees at such events included four notable men: William Edward Clarke, Crawford W. Long, Horace Wells, and William T. G. Morton.

Sir Humphry Davy, Courtesy of Wikipedia.

In 1839, while attending undergraduate school in Rochester, New York, classmates William Edward Clarke and T.G. Morton regularly participated in ether frolics. Then in 1842, while a medical student at the Berkshire Medical College, Clarke administered ether to a Miss Hobbie (also sometimes spelled Hobby). She was undergoing a dental extraction by Elijah Pope and although Clarke’s participation made him the first person to administer an inhaled anesthetic during a surgical procedure, he thought so little of his accomplishment he did nothing to pursue the technique further and it was not mentioned in his biography.

Crawford W. Long was a physician and pharmacist practicing in Jefferson, Georgia in the mid-19th century. During the late 1830s while a student at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, he probably participated at ether frolics. In addition, at one of these gatherings he observed some participants who experienced bumps and bruises while taking ether, but afterwards they had no recollection of how the bumps and bruises happened. He postulated that diethyl ether produced pharmacologic effects similar to those of nitrous oxide.

Ether- Crawford W. Long

Crawford W. Long. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

In 1842, a man named James Venable needed to have a tumor removed. The procedure was scheduled for 30 March, and it was Long who administered diethyl ether to him. Long used ether anesthesia again on Venable when he needed a second tumor removed. Long also went on to employ ether as a general anesthetic for limb amputations and parturition. However, he did not publish his experiences with ether until 1849, which the same year that the famous French socialite, Madame Récamier, died from cholera.

In the meantime, on 10 December 1844, Gardner Quincy Colton held a public demonstration of nitrous oxide in Hartford, Connecticut. One of the participants, Samuel A. Cooley, had sustained a significant injury to his leg while under the influence of nitrous oxide and had not notice the injury. Horace Wells, a Connecticut dentist, was present that day and immediately seized upon the significance of the analgesic effect of nitrous oxide. So, the following day, he underwent a painless dental extraction while under the influence of nitrous oxide that was administered by Colton. Wells was so happy with his procedure that he then began to administer nitrous oxide to his patients and performed several successful dental extractions over the next couple of weeks.

Horace Wells. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

William T. G. Morton, another New England dentist, was a former student and then-current business partner of Wells. He was also a former acquaintance and classmate of Clarke having attended undergraduate school with him in Rochester, New York. Morton arranged for Wells to demonstrate his technique for dental extraction using nitrous oxide as a general anesthesia at Massachusetts General Hospital. It happened on 20 January 1845 in conjunction with the prominent surgeon John Collins Warren. Unfortunately, it ended in failure because the patient cried out in pain in the middle of the operation.

William T.G. Morton. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Morton was not deterred and made another attempt on 30 September 1846. This time he administered diethyl ether to Eben Frost, a music teacher from Boston who was having a dental extraction. Two weeks later, on 16 October 1846 Morton became the first person to publicly demonstrate the use of diethyl ether as a general anesthetic when John Collins Warren removed a tumor from the neck of a local printer, Edward Gilbert Abbott. It happened at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, in what is known today as the Ether Dome. Of this event it was reported:

“When Dr. Morton made his first public demonstration … no one laughed, and it is recorded that the audience in the amphitheatre was as silent and as still as death; and when Dr. John C. Warren had completed his operation, he turned to those present and said in a solemn vow: ‘Gentlemen, this is no humbug.’”[1]

Ether - use of anesthetic in the Ether Dome

Re-enactment of the first public demonstration of general anesthesia by William T. G. Morton in the Ether Dome. Surgeons John Collins Warren and Henry Jacob Bigelow are included in this daguerrotype by Southworth & Hawes. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

News of this event spread rapidly around the world. Robert Liston, a British surgeon who was noted for his speed and skill in an era prior to anesthetics, then performed the first amputation using ether anesthesia at the University College Hospital on 21 December of that same year. However, Morton published his experience with anesthesia shortly after Liston’s success.*

Ether - Robert Liston

Robert Liston. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Years after surgeons were performing painless operations on sleeping patients with ether, an article appeared in Nebraska’s Beaver Crossing Times in 1892. It gave details about the early use of anesthesia and the first use of ether in Glasgow, Scotland. A student attending Anderson University, who was taking an anatomical class at the time, described the particulars associated with the event, which were then published in Longman’s Magazine. His description appears below almost verbatim:

“The news of Liston’s trial of aneasthesia by the inhalation of ether was brought as soon as possible to Glasgow, and was conveyed at once to the different learned professors of medicine in that city. I was at the time one of the students in the anatomical class … and according to custom the large class was seated in the lecture theater.

The professor we were under was Dr. Moses Buchanan, a most zealous, able and enthusiastic teacher. The professor was one of the most punctual men in the world in respect to lecture time, and after we students had sat for five minutes at least, with no professor in view, we began to get a little bit restless and noisy, wondering what had happened. At last the janitor, John MacDougal, opened the door at the back of the lecture table, and the missing professor appeared.

To our astonishment he told us that there would be no lecture that day; and then, for he was as good a surgeon as he was an anatomist, he informed us that he had to communicate a piece of news which marked a new era in medical science, nothing less than the discovery of a method by which the most important operations could be performed while the patient undergoing the operation was asleep. ‘I am,’ he added, ‘on my way to the Royal Infirmary to take part in the first trial of the new system there, and by the by we shall all meet to learn if the news that has reached us, and that seems to be satisfactorly, is really true. If it be, this day is a red-letter day in all our lives.’

As a matter of course, this news created the utmost excitement. We trooped off to the Royal infirmary as fast as our legs would carry us, and in due time were crowding into the operating theater. The operating theater was then under the fine dome which still crowns the Royal infirmary. The room formed a chapel on Sunday and in the rush for seats the best places were speedily secured. I and one or two other students got into the pulpit, which formed an excellent place for observation; others seized the precentor’s pew ― … The late professors ― Lawrie, Andrew Buchanan, Moses Buchanan, with Dr. Fleming. Mr. Anderson, and the house surgeons and the dressers in their blue-striped gowns, were in the area and on tip-toe of expectation.

The task of operating belonged to Prof. Andrew Buchanan, who, before the arrival of the patient stepped forward and in a gentle and nervous manner, natural to him, described the news that had come from the Massachusetts hospital, explaining that the process consisted in laying the patient in deep sleep by the inhalation of the vapor … that it had been carried out in American and in London; that it was called anesthesia ― a word derived from the Greek signifying ‘not to feel’ and that he and his colleagues after due consultation, had determined to put the new method to the test with as much care and precision as they could command in the first attempt.

The patient was then sent for, and came in with quite a smiling face, delighted with the idea of being cut without pain, and rather proud. I fancy, at being the first man in Scotland selected to enjoy the honor as well as pleasure. At all events he agreed with the utmost readiness to the proposal of the professionals that he should be put to sleep, and Dr. Fleming, with the house surgeon of the day for Buchanan’s ward, commenced to administer the ether vapor from a sponge surrounded by a towel. In a short time, the patient ― whose name, I think was Macleod ― began to talk and sing in a low voice in the style not uncommon to the second stage (as we afterwards designated it) of the ether narcotism, giving us a line or two at least from ‘Bobby’ and communicating one or two secrets which he might just as well kept to himself. He then lapsed into perfect quietude, and soon afterward was allowed to wake up with the operation completed without knowing that he had passed through anything more than a curious dream, feeling as he affirmed with a broad grin, just ‘was a wee bit fou’ and in no degree ashamed of acquaintanceship with that condition.”[2]

*Harvard University professor Charles Thomas Jackson later claimed that Morton stole his idea and a lifelong dispute between the two men erupted. For many years, Morton was credited as being the pioneer of general anesthesia in the Western hemisphere, despite his demonstration occurring four years after Long’s initial experience. Long remained upset and later petitioned William Crosby Dawson, a United States Senator from Georgia at that time, to support his claim on the United States Senate floor that he was the first person to use ether anesthesia.


  • [1] “International Journal of Surgery,” February 1895, 2, p. 170.
  • [2] The Beaver Crossing Times, “Early Aesthesia,” June 2, 1892, p. 2.

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