Today is World Anaesthesia Day, and commemorates the first public demonstration of ether on the 16th of October 1846.
The demonstration took place at the Massachusetts General Hospital, now preserved as the Ether Dome, on a patient having a tumour removed from his neck. The surgeon was Dr John Collins Warren, and the ether was given by William T G Morton using an inhaler of his own design.
Morton had studied at the Baltimore College of Dental School and Harvard Medical School, though left before graduating on both occasions. At Harvard, Morton had attended lectures given by Dr Charles T Jackson, in which he demonstrated that ether could cause a loss of consciousness. It seems that Jackson and his students missed any connection between ether and the potential for painless surgery, until on the 30th of September 1846 when Morton experimented with ether for a tooth extraction. The procedure was successful and Morton’s account was published in the newspapers. Just over a fortnight later, he was invited to give ether in a public demonstration. After the operation was successfully complete and the patient conscious, Warren reputedly turned to his audience to say ‘Gentlemen, this is no humbug!’
Among this audience was another surgeon, Dr Jacob Bigelow. He wrote of the events to a friend in London, and within a few days of his letter reaching England, ether was being used on surgical and dental patients in London.