William Thomas Green Morton was born August 9, 1819 in Charlton City, Massachusetts.
He found work as a retail clerk, a printer, and as a salesman in Boston before entering Baltimore College of Dental Surgery in 1840.
In 1841, William Morton gained notoriety for developing a new process to solder false teeth onto gold plates.
Then in 1842, he left college without graduating to study in Hartford, Connecticut with dentist Horace Wells, with whom Morton shared a brief dental partnership in Farmington, Connecticut.
At his dental practice he began to concentrate on manufacturing and fitting artificial teeth, work which led him to consider using anesthesia.
When William married Elizabeth Whiteman in 1843, the niece of former Connecticut Congressman Lemuel Whiteman, her parents objected to his dental profession and only agreed to the marriage after he promised to study medicine.
So, in the autumn of 1844, William Morton entered Harvard Medical School and attended the chemistry lectures of Dr. Charles T. Jackson, who introduced him to the anesthetic properties of ether.
William then left Harvard, also without graduating.
On September 1, 1846, William Morton performed a painless tooth extraction in a demonstration attended by witnesses. At this demonstration, Morton and Charles Jackson put the patient to sleep with what Morton referred to as letheon.
The success of this procedure was reported in the newspapers attracting wide attention, particularly among Boston doctors who were interested in the use of letheon for surgery.
Upon reading the favorable newspaper accounts of this event, Boston surgeon Henry Jacob Bigelow arranged for the famous demonstration of ether on October 16, 1846 at the amphitheater operating room of Massachusetts General Hospital.
At this demonstration, William Morton used ether to anesthetize a patient named Edward Gilbert Abbott.
Then Dr. John Collins Warren, the first dean of Harvard Medical School, painlessly removed part of a tumor from Abbott’s neck.
After Warren had finished, and Abbott regained consciousness, Warren asked the patient how he felt. Reportedly, Abbott said, “Feels as if my neck’s been scratched”.
Warren then turned to his medical audience and uttered “Gentlemen, this is no Humbug”. This was presumably a reference to the unsuccessful demonstration of nitrous oxide anesthesia by Horace Wells in the same theater the previous year, which was ended by cries of “Humbug!” after the patient groaned with pain.
News of this use of ether spread rapidly around the world, and the first recorded use of ether in Britain was by Robert Liston at University College Hospital on December 21, 1846.
The MGH theatre came to be known as the Ether Dome and has been preserved as a monument to this historic event. Following the demonstration, William Morton tried to hide the identity of the substance Abbott had inhaled, by referring to it as “Letheon”, but it soon was found to be ether.
Immediately after the event made the news, the French Academy of Medicine awarded Charles Jackson and William Morton a joint prize of 5,000 francs, but Morton turned it down on the grounds that the discovery rightfully belonged to him alone.
Then a month after this demonstration, William Morton applied for the patent of “letheon”, although it was widely known by then that the inhalant was ether. The medical community at large condemned Morton and the patent as unjust in such a humane and scientific profession.
William Morton assured his colleagues that he would not restrict the use of ether among hospitals and charitable institutions, alleging that his motives for seeking a patent were to ensure the competent administration of ether and to prevent its misuse or abuse, as well as to recoup the expenditures of its development.
Morton’s pursuit of credit for and profit from the administration of ether was complicated by the furtive and sometimes deceptive tactics he employed during its development, as well as the competing claims of other doctors, most notably his former mentor, Dr. Jackson.
Morton’s own efforts to obtain patents overseas also undermined his assertions of philanthropic intent.
Consequently, no effort was made to enforce the patent, and ether soon came into general use.
In December 1846, Willaim Morton applied to Congress for “national recompense” of $100,000, but this too was complicated by the claims of Jackson and Wells as discoverers of ether, and so Morton’s application proved fruitless. He made similar applications in 1849, 1851, and 1853, and all failed.
In 1849, Morton sought remuneration for his achievement through a futile attempt to sue the United States government. He petitioned Congress for a reward of $100,000 for the discovery of anesthesia.
Lengthy debates took place between the medical parties, leaving the issue deadlocked.
Morton’s legal expenses and the neglect of his practice in the pursuit of his discovery reduced him to poverty.
In 1852, Morton received an honorary degree from the Washington University of Medicine in Baltimore, which later became the College of Physicians and Surgeons.
In the spring of 1857, Amos Lawrence, a wealthy Bostonian, together with the medical professionals and influential citizens of Boston, developed a plan to raise $100,000 as a national testimonial to Morton, receiving contributions from both public and private citizens.
Morton’s notoriety only increased when he served as the star defense witness in one of the most notable trials of the nineteenth century, that of John White Webster, who had been accused of the murder of Dr. George Parkman.
William Morton tried public service yet again in the autumn of 1862 when he joined the Army of the Potomac as a volunteer surgeon, and applied ether to more than two thousand wounded soldiers during the battles of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and the Wilderness.
Morton was in New York City in July 15, 1868 when he went to Central Park to seek relief from a heat wave, where he collapsed and died soon after at the age of 48. He is buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Watertown and Cambridge, Massachusetts.
In 1871, a committee of those involved in raising the aforementioned national testimonial published The Historical Memoranda Relative to the Discovery of Etherization to establish William Morton as the inventor and revealer of anesthetic inhalation and to justify pecuniary reward to Morton’s family for the “fearful moral and legal responsibility he assumed in pursuit of this discovery.”
The first use of ether as an anesthetic is commemorated in the Ether Monument in the Boston Public Garden, but the designers were careful not to choose sides in the debate over who should deserve credit for the discovery. Instead, the statue depicts a doctor in medieval Moorish robes and turban.
Morton’s first successful public demonstration of ether as an inhalation anesthetic was such an historic and widely-publicized event that many consider him to be the “inventor and revealer” of anesthesia.
However, Morton’s work was preceded by that of Georgia surgeon Crawford Williamson Long, who employed ether as an anesthetic on March 30, 1842.
Although Long demonstrated its use to physicians in Georgia on numerous occasions, he did not publish his findings until 1849, in The Southern Medical and Surgical Journal. These pioneering uses of ether were key factors in the medical and scientific pursuit now referred to as anesthesiology, and allowed the development of modern surgery.
Spread of the news of this “new” anesthetic was helped by the subsequent feud that developed between Morton and Horace Wells and Charles T. Jackson.
Now WE know em