William Thomas Green Morton (1819-1868)

William Green Morton was born at Charlton, Massachusetts, on 19th August 1819. He became at the age of 17 a businessman in Boston but after several years being unsuccessful; he took up the study of dentistry at the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery, and eventually trained as a dentist.

Ironically, he studied under Horace Wells in Hartford Connecticut. These two became associates.
Morton decided to leave the dentistry profession and study medicine at Harvard University.
After observing Horace Wells attempt to do a painless tooth extraction under nitrous oxide and fail miserably, also being called a
"Humbug" in the distinguished company of surgeons, Morton decided to research into other substances especially ether to which he had become familiar with its anaesthetic properties whilst studying chemistry under Dr Charles T. Jackson.168 He it seems in discussion with Jackson, experimented with Ether.
He eventually carried out a painless extraction on September 30th 1846.
He was now convinced that he could administer ether successfully using an inhaler he had designed, so he contacted Dr Warren at the Massachusetts General hospital to arrange a demonstration on a patient. 

Morton went into partnership with Horace Wells in 1842-1843 and this is where he became motivated to finding a substance that was suitable for dental and surgical procedures.
The partnership did not last, that is when Morton decided to study Medicine at Harvard in 1844.

So it was on the 16 October 1846 at Boston University Hospital Massachusetts when William Thomas Green Morton delivered four minutes of inhalation ether and anaesthetised Edward G Abbott who was a printer from that city.
John Collins Warren the eminent surgeon who carried out the surgical procedure was led to exclaim,
“Gentlemen this is no Humbug.” This statement probably referring to Horace Wells failed attempt a year earlier.
The drug Morton used that day was Ether.

The following day Morton’s second successful demonstration went better than the first when surgeon George Hayward removed a large tumour from a woman's arm.

The inscription in the “Ether Dome” (originally called the Bulfinch Building) at Boston Hospital reads

“On October 16, 1846, in this hall, the former operating theatre occurred the first public demonstration of narcosis, which resulted in analgesia during a major surgical intervention. Ether sulphurous was applied by William Thomas Green Morton, a dentist from Boston. Gilbert Abbot was the patient and a neoplasm of the jaw was removed by John Collins Warren. The patient declared that he did not feel any pain and he was emitted whole on December 7th. This discovery has spread from this room and opened a new era for surgery.175

Henry Bigelow wrote :

"The present operation was performed by Dr. Warren, and though comparatively slight, involved an incision near the lower jaw of some inches in extent. During the operation the patient muttered, as in a semi-conscious state, and afterwards stated that the pain was consider- able, though mitigated; in his own words, as though the skin had been scratched with a hoe. There was, probably, in this instance, some defect in the process of inhalation, for on the following day the vapour was administered to another patient with complete success.

A fatty tumour of considerable size was removed, by Dr. Hayward, from the arm of a woman near the deltoid muscle. The operation lasted four or five minutes, during which time the patient betrayed occasional marks of uneasiness; but upon subsequently regaining her consciousness, professed not only to have felt no pain, but to have been insensible to surrounding objects, to have known nothing of the operation, being only uneasy about a child left at home. No doubt, I think, existed, in the minds of those who saw this operation, that the unconsciousness was real; nor could the imagination be accused of any share in the production of these remarkable phenomena."

With the official discovery of anaesthesia, surgery took gigantic steps forward. With Ether and later Chloroform the patient suffered no direct surgical pain during the surgical procedure, the surgeons then pursued surgical cures for almost any condition, which could warrant it.
In a letter to Morton, Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894) (who is better known for writing hymns,) suggested the word
anaesthesia’. Which had been used by the Greeks and when translated means: 174


It is quite a shame that this discovery was clouded by the bitter fight for recognition with Charles Jackson the Chemist being the main accuser to Morton and Horace Wells.
Morton's greatest mistake was however to try and hide the real identity of the substance.
Morton added some odour-masking impurities to ether and called it a different name Letheon, thinking to benefit financially by the discovery.
The mainstream of medicine at the time felt that the medical institutions and patients were being held to ransom for a substance that was widely available but its identity hidden.

Morton died suddenly of "brain congestion" in 1868. He received recognition eventually by the Academia.

Morton Epitaph reads:

"By whom pain in surgery was averted and annulled, before whom in all time surgery was agony, since whom science has control of pain,"


                                                                                                                 BMA Interview


About This Site

The History of Surgery and Anaesthesia was created as a free resource to educate Students or indeed anyone wishing to understand the beginings of surgery and Anaesthesia.

Get in Touch