Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Most Important Invention of the Nineteenth Century?

When I was a child, someone decided I needed a tonsillectomy so my parents took me from our cabin in the foothills of the Ozarks to Springfield, Missouri, for the operation. I have a few memories of that day, like I couldn’t have a drink and it was raining. But what I remember most was the sedation. A mask of some kind was placed over my face and I was forced to inhale a terrible gas. My mother always said it was ether but it may have been chloroform. It was a very frightening experience.

Recently, I had an angiogram at Central DuPage Hospital, now called Cadence Health. I guess I don’t understand the name change because it will always be Central DuPage Hospital to me - like the Sears Tower in Chicago. Why give up years of great history for a name that no one understands and one you have to explain? Regardless, it’s a great hospital and they have just opened a new wing which is certainly more opulent than I need.

When the time arrived, I was wheeled into the operating room and under bright lights where everyone was introduced. I was quickly asleep without knowing exactly when it happened. No mask, no pain - it was quite a change from 80 years ago.

Can, you image having surgery without anesthetics? (Read the blog for December 2011 “Dr. Ephraim McDowell and His Christmas Miracle.”)

The following statement was found in the Cambridge Sketches by Frank P. Stearns now in the public domain.

“A distinguished American called upon Charles Darwin, and in the course of conversation asked him what he considered the most important discovery of the nineteenth century. To which Mr. Darwin replied, after a slight hesitation: ‘Painless surgery.’ He thought this more beneficially in its effects on human affairs than either the steam-engine or the telegraph. Let it also be noted that he spoke of it as an invention, rather than as a discovery.”

It was not until the 1840s that a process had been invented for the use of ether or chloroform. If you search the Internet, you will find such names as: Dr. Samuel Guthrie, Sir James Young Simpson and Crawford Williamson Long as connected to the use of ether and chloroform.

For this discussion, I would like to concentrate on William Thomas Green Morton. He was born the son of a farmer and represented the fifth generation of the Morton family that came from Scotland. Historian James C. Thomson wrote: “The Morton’s were in the vanguard of the first thin stream of Scottish emigrants flowing steadily for the next 300 years from the Highlands and Islands, the Lowlands, and Ulster to the New World.”

William Thomas Green Morton was born August 9, 1819, near Charlton, Massachusetts. He moved to Boston and took up the study of dentistry and was a graduate of the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery. He drifted into the practice of making artificial teeth but the pain suffered by his patients was a constant concern to him. He began to experiment with ether, first on animals and them on himself.

On September 1, 1846, he put Gilbert Abbott to sleep using ether and extracted a tooth without pain. He called the substance “letheon” and was given a government patent. He jealously guarded the process and would only issue a license personally for its use. He later explained that it was ether and was thus unable to protect his patent. He spent 20 years and his entire fortune trying to protect his invention.

In 1862, Morton joined the Army of the Potomac as a volunteer surgeon and used ether on more than two thousand injured soldiers during the battles of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and the Wilderness. I have read that ether was widely used on the battlefields of the Civil War.

By 1868, the life of William Morton was a complete shamble. His health was gone and he had no resources. Trying to protect his invention had taken his health and his wealth. In July of that year, he was in New York City and it was unbearably hot and humid. Like other New Yorkers, he went to Central Park to find relief from the heat but it was not to be. He never returned. William Thomas Green Morton is buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Watertown, Massachusetts.

A friend said: “Like many another benefactor of mankind, Doctor Morton’s reward on earth was a crown of thorns.”

Wayne Rethford, President Emeritus
Illinois St. Andrew’s Society
Scottish American History Club

Please register for the History Tour scheduled for October 6, 2012. First stop is Wheaton College and the Billy Graham Center. Second stop is at the Wheaton History Museum. Cost is $25.00 per person. You can register and pay at our store or call (708) 447-5092.

November 6, 2012, History Club meeting. Main presentation is by Molly McNeil and her trip to Africa. Rosie Johnston will also talk about her work and we will have a visit from this year’s reining Heather Queen.

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