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William T. G. Morton: Wikis


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William Thomas Green Morton

Born 9 August 1819(1819-08-09)
Charlton, Massachusetts
Died 15 July 1868 (aged 48)
New York City
Nationality United States
Fields Dentistry
Known for Ether for surgical operation
Influences Charles T. Jackson
Horace Wells

William Thomas Green Morton (August 9, 1819 – July 15, 1868) was an American dentist who first publicly demonstrated the use of inhaled ether as a surgical anesthetic in 1846. The promotion of his questionable claim to have been the discoverer of anesthesia became an obsession for the rest of his life.[1]


Life and work

Born in Charlton, Massachusetts, William T. G. Morton was the son of James Morton, a farmer, and Rebecca (Needham) Morton. William found work as a clerk, printer, and salesman in Boston before entering Baltimore College of Dental Surgery in 1840. In 1841, he gained notoriety for developing a new process to solder false teeth onto gold plates.[2] In 1842, he left college without graduating to study in Hartford, Connecticut with dentist Horace Wells, with whom Morton shared a brief partnership. In 1843 Morton married Elizabeth Whitman of Farmington, Connecticut, the niece of former Congressman Lemuel Whitman. Her parents objected to Morton's profession and only agreed to the marriage after he promised to study medicine. In the autumn of 1844, Morton entered Harvard Medical School and attended the chemistry lectures of Dr. Charles T. Jackson, who introduced Morton to the anesthetic properties of ether. Morton then also left Harvard without graduating.

On September 30, 1846, Morton performed a painless tooth extraction after administering ether to a patient. Upon reading a favorable newspaper account of this event, Boston surgeon Henry Bigelow arranged for a now-famous demonstration of ether on October 16, 1846 at the Massachusetts General Hospital. At this demonstration Dr. John Collins Warren painlessly removed a tumor from the neck of a Mr. Edward Gilbert Abbott. Following the demonstration, 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.[3]

A month after this demonstration, a patent was issued for "letheon", although it was widely known by then that the inhalant was ether. The medical community at large condemned the patent as unjust and illiberal in such a humane and scientific profession.[4] 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, 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. He later sought remuneration for his achievement through a futile attempt to sue the United States government. The lawyer who represented him was Richard Henry Dana, Jr.

In 1852 he received an honorary degree from the Washington University of Medicine in Baltimore, which later became the College of Physicians and Surgeons.[5]

Panel from monument in Boston commemorating Morton's demonstration of the anesthetic use of ether.

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. Morton's rival, Dr. Jackson, testified for the prosecution, and the residents of Boston were anxious to witness these nemeses in courtroom combat.[6]

Morton performed 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 1868 when he went to Central Park to seek relief from a heat wave, where he collapsed and died soon after. 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 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.[7]

Morton's life and work were later to become the subject of the 1944 Paramount Pictures film The Great Moment.

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 Dr. 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.[8] 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.

See also


  1. ^ Fenster, J. M. (2001). Ether Day: The Strange Tale of America's Greatest Medical Discovery and the Haunted Men Who Made It. New York, NY: HarperCollins. ISBN 978-0060195236. 
  2. ^ Packard, Francis Randolph (1901). The History of Medicine in the United States. Philadelphia and London: J. B. Lippincott Company. pp. 475.,M1/. 
  3. ^ ""Letheon" Inhaler". Retrieved 2009-05-01. 
  4. ^ Smith, Stephen (1862). "The Ether Patent". Medical Times 4 (January to July): 83 – 84.,M1/. 
  5. ^ Pinsker, Sheila; Harding, Robert S. (1986). "The Morton Family Collection 1849-1911". Retrieved 2008-12-02. 
  6. ^ Sullivan, Robert (1971). The Disappearance of Dr. Parkman. Little, Brown, and Company. 
  7. ^ Committee of Citizens of Boston (1871). Historical Memoranda Relative to the Discovery of Etherization and to the Connection with it of the Late William T.G. Morton. Boston: Rand, Avery, and Frye. 
  8. ^ See (Edward J. Huth and T. J. Murray)

Further reading

External links



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