A World Before Anesthetics

Oil on board by unknown artist, mid 19th century. Amputation with several  attendants holding down the patient and students observing the procedure.


Before anesthetics, “a surgeon would employ six burly men to hold a patient down as the chief surgeon pushed a saw past the sliced muscles, still twitching, and listened as the blade cut through the bone,” says Julie M. Fenster, author of the book Ether Day, detailing the brutal and painful past of modern surgery. “Some of the patients remember the sounds of their limbs dropping to the ground.”

In the early 19th century, surgeons had limited options for reducing the intense pain surgery caused. On October 16, 1846, a group of surgeons would gather to witness the first public display of ether as an anesthetic in the operating theatre, now called the Ether Dome, at Massachusetts General Hospital. Located right along the Charles River, on the top floor of the Bullfinch Building, the operating room would become home to one of the most influential medical advancements in history and the setting for the epic battle between the men who developed it in Elizabeth Egloff’s historical drama, Ether Dome.

Egloff presents us with an in-depth portrait of the surprising and extraordinary discovery of sulfuric ether’s analgesic properties and each of the eccentric men who made it possible. “It was the moment when Boston, and indeed the United States, first emerged as a world-class center of medical innovation,” writes Mike Jay in The Boston Globe. The monumental finding of ether’s medicinal properties “would transform medicine, dramatically expanding the scope of what doctors were able to accomplish,” he continues.

Because a historic legacy awaited the inventor of the “mysterious compound,” a dispute unraveled between four men, each with their own claim to the invention. The chief participants in that battle were Hartford dentist Horace Wells, Boston doctor Charles T. Jackson, chief of surgery and founder of MGH Dr. John Collins Warren, and young entrepreneur William T. G. Morton. Egloff pits student against teacher, ambition against altruism.

Egloff takes us through the rise and fall of these men, each of them risking their life and reputation to come closer to the monumental discovery, beginning with Horace Wells and his chance encounter with ‘the laughing gas.’ “It was more the power of nitrous oxide to produce pleasure than suppress pain that caught the public imagination,” says Jay. The recreational drug “found a twilight existence in music hall entertainments and variety shows” where Wells breaks his nose and realizes the gas’ painkilling properties. Ether Dome jumps from laughing parties in Hartford, Connecticut to public tests of anesthesia at a surgeons’ meeting in Boston, to Morton’s fledgling home experiments on his pets.

Egloff brings heated debates to life with witty and dynamic dialogue, creating a vibrant picture of the battles that took place in Boston. The showdowns continue past the original Ether Day since its discovery also marks the beginning of the commercialization of modern medicine. The concept of paying for treatment was unusual during the early 19th century, but Morton’s entrepreneurial instinct forces commerce and medicine into an uneasy partnership, one that sets the stage for divisive arguments in our own time over healthcare as a commodity.

Egloff’s play bears a subtitle: “A Grand Exhibition Produced on the Dramatic Stage with No Expense Spared, Showing the Exhilarating Inventions of the Medical Mind,” and this elaborate description fits her larger-than-life play that takes us through both the thrill of discovery and the downfall of those creators.


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