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William T. G. Morton

the first to publicly demonstrate the use of sulfuric ether as an anesthetic

William Thomas Green Morton

William Thomas Green Morton was born in Charlton, Massachusetts, on August 9, 1819. He was educated at Northfield and Leicester Academies. At the age of seventeen he went to work as a clerk and salesman in various business houses in Boston, but found the work unsatisfying. In 1840 he enrolled in the College of Dental Surgery in Baltimore, and began practicing dentistry in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1842. He returned to Hartford in 1843. In 1844 he began studying medicine with Dr. Charles T. Jackson, and later continued his studies at the Harvard Medical School. He did not complete his degree studies at Harvard, but in 1852 was awarded a Masters honoris causa by the Washington University of Medicine (now the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Baltimore).

While studying with Dr. Jackson, the doctor demonstrated before his chemistry classes that inhalation of sulfuric ether causes loss of consciousness. Morton was especially interested in the manufacture of artificial teeth and was, therefore, concerned with lessening the pain of extraction of roots. He tried inhalation of sulfuric ether on himself, and during the summer of 1846 he anaesthetized goldfish, a hen, and a dog. All four "patients" recovered and Morton was ready to use ether on other patients.

On September 30, 1846, Morton used sulfuric ether to remove an ulcerated tooth from a patient who reportedly experienced no pain during the procedure. After an account of the procedure was written up in the Boston Daily Journal, Henry J. Bigelow, a Boston surgeon affiliated with Massachusetts General Hospital, and John Collins Warren, the surgical chief of the hospital, invited Morton to demonstrate his procedure there. On October 16, 1846, Morton used sulfuric ether to successfully anesthetize a patient, from whom Dr. Warren removed a neck tumor. The following day he used ether to anesthetize a patient for Dr. George Hayward. After several weeks of further trials, Dr. Bigelow announced Morton's discovery in the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, on November 18, 1846.

On October 27, 1846, Morton and Jackson applied for a patent, which was issued on November 12.

In 1847, a petition to the U.S. Congress by the physicians and surgeons of Boston requested compensation to the discoverer of the anesthetic qualities of ether. Since this petition resulted in no action, Morton himself petitioned Congress. Two bills appropriating $200,000 for the discovery of practical anesthesia were introduced into three sessions of Congress, but none passed. Morton spent the last twenty years of his life trying to get compensation for his discovery.

Among the honors Morton did receive were:
the Montyon Prize of 5,000 French francs, awarded jointly to him and Dr. Jackson by the French Academy of Sciences
Morton refused the award, saying that the discovery was his and his alone, and that he should not have to share the money.
a testimonial of $1,000 from the trustees of the Massachusetts General Hospital
the Order of Wasa of Sweden and Norway
the Order of St. Vladimir of Russia

Dr. William T.G. Morton died of apoplexy on July 15, 1869.

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This page was last updated on 02/05/2019.