The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Surgical anesthesia emerged from self-experimentation and dueling egos

An image that is believed to be a reenactment of the demonstration of ether anesthesia by William T.G. Morton in 1846. (Library of Congress)

In 1846, a dentist and a surgeon tried something dramatically new: the first public operation performed with anesthesia. Armed with a glass globe filled with ether, they anesthetized a patient and painlessly removed a tumor from his neck.

“Gentlemen, this is no humbug,” John Collins Warren, the surgeon, supposedly exclaimed.

Although he and dentist William T.G. Morton didn’t manage to put the patient to sleep, he didn’t feel pain. A new era of surgical anesthesia had begun.

Today, more than 31,000 professional anesthesiologists ply their trade in operating rooms in the country. But in the 1840s, the thought of performing an operation without pain or consciousness was revolutionary.

Scientists had tried before — and failed miserably. An 1845 demonstration of nitrous oxide ended in humiliation when their patient apparently screamed from pain despite the laughing gas.

“The spectators laughed and hissed. . . . We were looked upon as having made ourselves very ridiculous,” an offended Morton wrote.

By 1846, however, they had regrouped and were using a more effective substance, sulfuric ether, at the suggestion of chemist Charles T. Jackson.

So who actually invented surgical anesthesia?

It’s a twisted tale of scientific progress, self-experimentation and dueling egos.

Along the way, the doctors attempted to perfect the then-inexact art of delivering just enough ether to patients. They also tussled over who should get the credit — and profit from the discovery.

Anesthesia made massive innovations in surgical science possible. The historic surgical amphitheater at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston where that fateful first operation was performed is now known as the Ether Dome.

The story, along with archival documents and photographs, is told by curator Jack Eckert in “Strange Magic of the Enchanted Goblet.” Presented by the Center for the History of Medicine at Harvard’s Countway Library, the online exhibition uses resources from Boston Medical Library and Harvard Medical School to tell the story of the first operations that used anesthesia. Visit to learn more.

Hypnotherapy isn’t magic, but it helps some patients cope with surgery

Harrowing delirium affects millions after surgery, especially the elderly

Knock yourself out at the Ether Dome