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History of General Anesthesia and Dental Surgery

General Anesthesia History

One of the most fascinating books that I have ever read is "The 100 - A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History" by Michael Hart. In his book, Hart ranks historical figures in order of their influence on mankind. The book discusses a brief history of the influential figure, why they were important, and justifies their "rank" in history. Hart chronicles historical giants including Newton, Einstein, Jesus, Muhammad, Aristotle, Columbus, Edison and many others. Dr. William T. G. Morton is the only dentist included on the list, and is considered by Hart to be the 37th most influential person in human history.

Dr. William Morton, a Massachusetts dentist, was looking for a way to painlessly extract teeth. As a dentist practicing in the 1840's, there was no local or general anesthesia available to make removing teeth tolerable. Although Dr. Morton knew about nitrous oxide from his association with another dentist, Dr. Horace Wells, he wanted a more powerful agent. He discussed the problem with Dr. Charles T. Jackson, a physician and scientist who suggested that he try ether.

Dr. Morton liked the idea and began experimenting with his pet dog and then himself. After he developed a comfort level with the anesthetic, an opportunity arose for him to try ether on a patient. On September 30, 1846, a man named Eben Frost came to his office fearful and with a terrible toothache. Frost allowed Dr. Morton to extract his tooth under the influence of ether and it was a complete success. Frost had felt no pain. Now Dr. Morton was ready to share his knowledge and risk his reputation in a public demonstration at Massachusetts General Hospital. At the hospital, Dr. Morton, acting as the anesthetist, administered ether while surgeon Dr. John C. Warren removed a tumor from his patient's neck. Like before, the operation was an overwhelming success.

Word soon spread of Dr. Morton's demonstration, and the use of ether as a general anesthetic became widely adopted. Although Dr. Morton deserves most of the credit for introducing ether and general anesthesia to the world, he never received the recognition or any financial rewards for his discovery. Today, physicians and dentists use other types of agents for general anesthesia, but for nearly a century, ether was the anesthetic of choice to put people to sleep during surgical procedures.

I believe that author Michael Hart has best put into perspective the importance of Dr. Morton's contribution. "Few inventions in all of history are so highly valued by individual human beings as anesthetics. The grimness of surgery in the days when a patient had to be awake while a surgeon sawed through his bones is frightful to contemplate. The ability to put an end to this kind of pain is certainly one of the greatest gifts that any man ever gave to his fellows."

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