The Origins of the Ether Dome

Painting of Dr. H.J. Bigelow, Dr. A.A. Gould, Dr. J.C. Warren, Dr. W.T.G. Morton, Dr. Samuel Parkman, Dr. George Hayward, Dr. J. Mason Warren, and Dr. S.D. Townsend at the first public demonstration of anesthesia on October 16, 1846 in Boston, Massachusetts

The play Ether Dome began when director Michael Wilson, then artistic director ofHartford Stage Company, learned that a Connecticut dentist named Horace Wells “invented” anesthesia — there is even a statue of Wells in Hartford — but that the credit in most of the history books had gone to his protégée, a huckster named William T.G. Morton. He approached Connecticut native and playwright Elizabeth Egloff to commission a play about the two men, and as she worked, the canvas quickly expanded to the halls of Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital with co-founder John Collins Warren and inventor and doctor Charles Jackson becoming central characters. For both Wilson and Egloff, the story is a revelatory and decisive moment in the history of medicine and commerce in American life.

 “The play is not just a story about who discovered ether. It's about the values of American society in the 1840s and their attitudes toward medicine, science, religion, and human suffering. Until ether was discovered, doctors used herbs, tinctures, and  ointments they bought from liquor stores. Doctors prescribed remedies like alcohol or laudanum, but couldn't find the right level of sedation or consistency to ensure pain relief.

              William TG Morton                              Horace Wells

By the 1800s, speed was the only relief from pain. Doctors were going through surgery as fast as they could; a leg could be amputated in 2.5 minutes. The problem was that patients could go into shock, and more than half the time they died. Surgery was so abhorrent, patients would rather commit suicide than submit to a medical or dental procedure. If ether had not been discovered, and Morton hadn’t found a way to administer it, who knows how long it would have taken for us to develop  painless surgery.

“When Morton found a way to administer ether, he wanted to charge money for it. At the time, to ask a patient to pay for pain relief went against everything that  medical establishment stood for. Today, the idea of providing medicine for free is  unheard of. The issue of doctors, drug medicine, and the treatment of patients  continues to be controversial, and the battle for credit among researchers, hospitals,  and pharmaceutical companies is still going on. 

Ether Dome is also the story of men with tremendous hubris. Despite their pursuit of recognition for their contributions to the discovery of anesthesia, Warren, Wells,  Jackson, and Morton were all brought down by the historic events of October 16, 1846. But they all played their part to bring medicine into the modern age.”

       - Elizabeth Egloff, On The Contemporary Significance of Ether Dome

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