An interview with Ether Dome playwright Elizabeth Egloff

What inspired you to write a play about the circumstances of the discovery of anesthesia?

I got a phone call from Michael Wilson in the summer of 2005. He was the artistic director of Hartford Stage at the time, and the theatre received a grant from the state of Connecticut to commission a play inspired by local historical events. One day while he was walking in Hartford’s Bushnell Park he came upon a statue of Horace Wells. He asked a friend who he was. That’s when the idea for the play started. He talked to me about writing a play about Horace Wells, a dentist in Hartford who had something to do with the discovery of ether — that he was robbed of the credit by his student and that nobody knows what really happened. He thought that the story might be a great idea for a play.

Why did Michael think you would be the right person to write this story?

He knew that I had grown up in Farmington, Connecticut, where Morton’s wife lived before they married. I went to school in West Hartford and college in Hartford. And I was steeped in the Hartford view of the world and of itself. I was thrilled to take it on — I love plays about history and politics.

As I researched, I became hypnotized by the story of the four men who were at the center of the ether controversy: Horace Wells, William Morton, and Dr. Charles T. Jackson and Dr. John C. Warren, esteemed surgeons at Massachusetts General Hospital, one of a handful of respected medical schools in the country.

                                     The Cast of Ether Dome                              Hannah Tamminen, Michael Bakkensen, and Lee Sellars in Ether Dome
Photos: Kevin Berne

Wells had been investigating ways to alleviate his patients’ suffering during dental surgery. He witnessed a man who injured himself after inhaling laughing gas. When he saw that the man felt no pain, he wondered if the gas could be used on his patients. He successfully experimented with the gas, and Morton suggested he demonstrate the procedure in Mass General’s operating theatre. The stakes for Wells’s demonstration in the hospital’s dome were very high. When it failed, it launched a medical competition that would change history and the destinies of those four men.

Jackson claimed he had given Morton a vial of sulphuric ether so that he could painlessly extract his wife’s tooth. Morton took both Wells’ and Jackson’s ideas and climbed his way into Mass General’s dome and into the medical history books. Wells, a sensitive idealist, was irreparably wounded by Morton’s betrayal and descended into depression and addiction. Some believed Wells was the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

At a certain point, I realized that there were inconsistencies; the story was different depending on whose version I read. But the brutal fact remained that Morton deserved the credit — he was the one who picked up the ball when no one else did and took it all the way into the end zone. Harvard Medical School and Mass General’s library accounts have always credited Morton, but no mention is made about his scandalous past. Jackson receives some credit for helping Morton with research. Their accounts don’t mention Wells. After the 2001 publication of Julie M. Fenster’s book, Ether Day, Harvard began to include small references to Wells, so he’s no longer invisible.

It’s an epic story and incredibly dramatic. How did you create a play from this factual story?

In order to put it on stage, I needed to decide whose story it was. After many drafts, it finally came to me that it’s Horace’s story; his struggle and downfall frames the play. There were so many people involved, I had to compress a number of Mass General doctors into Drs. Haywood, Bigelow, and Gould. These three men, along with Jackson, became the chorus of the play. The factual events occurred between 1845-1870, but I collapsed the story, into one year. The arc of the story hasn’t changed since my first draft.

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