Learn about the stories behind 10 extraordinary inventions. In this video, you'll learn about ether anesthesia.
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Male Speaker: The use of ether as an anesthetic in the mid 19th century was heralded as one of the greatest advances in surgical technology to date. Gripped onto a mask such as this one, ether was inhaled to the mouth and nose by the patient. Its discovery is one that brought the alleviation of pain to millions, but bitter pain and jealousy to its discoverers. On October 16th, 1846, the first public demonstration of ether anesthesia, a seminal event in medical history, took place at Massachusetts General Hospital. Before anesthetics, surgery was an incredibly painful and horrific experience. Surgeons had few options for dulling the intense pain. The most common techniques were plying the patient with opium or alcohol until almost passed out and then employing several strong men to hold the patient down while a quick surgery was performed. Dr. Mark Communale: Surgery was very limited because patient pain, movement, and anxiety. Surgeons were not able to perform many procedures because the patient would move. They were not able to perform many procedures that would take a long time, simply because the patient couldn't tolerate it. Male Speaker: Patients would scream with agony throughout the entire procedure. It wasn't uncommon for people to commit suicide rather than go through the nightmare of surgery. In the 1830s, it became increasingly popular for college students to throw parties known as "ether frolics". Students discovered that when they sniffed the pungent and volatile ether, they would get high. At the same time, nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, was being demonstrated by marketers across the country. Customers paid $0.25 to watch fellow audience members make fools of themselves while intoxicated by the gas. In December of 1844, a dentist named Horace Wells attended one of these exhibitions. Dr. Mark Communale: Nitrous oxide was available to the general population and it was essentially a party. People would come and get a bag of nitrous oxide and inhale it. They would ensue laughter and laughter just about anything. The interesting part about this is that nitrous oxide wasn't really known to be an anesthetic agent or to relief pain until it was absorbed that at one of these nitrous oxide frolics, someone injured their leg and didn't realized that they'd injured their leg, so they were too busy laughing to realize that their leg was injured. Male Speaker: The man badly injured his leg and Wells asked him if it hurt; the volunteer was stunned at the sight of his own blood as he had felt no pain. Wells was so convinced that nitrous oxide could be used as an anesthetic for dental surgery, that he had an assistant remove one of his own teeth while under its influence. He described the experience as no more painful than the prick of a pin. Dr. Mark Communale: Wells went and talked to Dr. Warren at the Massachusetts General Hospital and explained to him that what he had observed, and arranged to have a demonstration. Now what happened was that the patient came in and Wells administered nitrous oxide to the patient. Once the surgery was started, the patient screamed in pain. So of course Dr. Warren then started to have doubts about whether this was in fact an anesthetic agent. At that time, there were lots of agents that were proposed to be anesthetic agents and they were all proving to be non effective. Male Speaker: They immediately called the procedure a failure and proclaimed Wells a humbug. Despite the setback, Wells continued to try to convince doctors of the pain-relieving benefits of nitrous oxide. Wells contacted two colleagues: a former dental student, Dr. William Morton, and Morton's general medical studies teacher, Dr. Charles Jackson. But, neither Morton nor Jackson showed much interest in working with Wells. Months later, Morton encountered a dental patient experiencing intense pain fears. He asked Jackson, a chemist, for nitrous oxide. Jackson replied that he didn't have any, but that ether would do just the s