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William Thomas Green Morton (1819-68)

William Morton is associated with the use of ether as a dental and surgical anaesthetic. He studied at the world's first dental school, Baltimore College of Dental Surgery, but left without finishing his degree. In 1844 he became a student at Harvard Medical School, but again did not finish his studies. However, at Harvard he attended the lectures of Professor Charles Jackson, who in 1844 demonstrated that inhaling ether caused unconsciousness.

Having seen his former business partner Horace Wells fail to convince the medical establishment of the usefulness of nitrous oxide, Morton decided to investigate ether. In 1846 he extracted a tooth from a local Boston merchant, who felt no pain. The success of this operation led others to start experimenting with ether, and its use spread rapidly across the world. In 1852 Morton was granted an honorary doctorate by the Washington University in Baltimore.

Morton spent much of the rest of his life in disputes with other medical men over who discovered the use of ether first. He developed a letheon (as he called ether) inhaler, which he tried to patent as a unique invention. Morton had little success in trying to claim that he was the first person who had discovered ether’s properties, and became increasingly bitter as his legal battles failed. He died in 1868 at the age of 48, deeply in debt.


Related links

Techniques and Technologies:


S J Snow, Blessed Days of Anaesthesia: How Anaesthetics Changed the World (Oxford: OUP, 2008)