The Ether Dome and the Evolution of Anesthesiology

Courtesy of Smells Like

On Thursday, December 8th, the Old South Meeting House will host a lecture by Dr. Warren Zapol, Emeritus Anesthetist-in-Chief of Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), entitled-  The Ether Dome and Beyond: Anesthesia and its Development. At this talk Dr. Zapol will discuss the discovery of ether as the catalyst for a series of critical care developments.

The lecture will take place at the Old South Meeting House (OSMH) at 310 Washington Street, Boston, MA 02108 at 12:15 P.M. Employees of MGH and OSMH Museum Members enjoy free admission. The event is also open to the public at $6/ adults, $5/ seniors and students and $1/ children. Children under 6 may attend for free.

Ether was used for the first time in a surgical procedure on October 16, 1846. The Ether Dome Monument in the Public Garden immortalized this important medical moment.

The History of Ether

On October 16, 1846, dentist Dr. William Thomas Green Morton and Dr. John Collins Warren changed the future of surgical procedures. Dr. Morton administered ether to patient Gilbert Abbot as Dr. Warren cut a tumor from his neck in the Bulfinch Building at MGH. Today the operating room is a lecture hall known as the Ether Dome.

Dr. Morton had begun his search for painless surgery as a young Boston dentist. His patients regularly chose to forgo beneficial dental procedures, unable to endure the extreme pain during the process.

Courtesy of Smells Like

After first trying to intoxicate patients with draughts of wine and brandy, then experimenting with opium to reduce sensibility, Dr. Morton finally tried applying ether in July of 1844. He had discovered the numbing effects of ether when applied directly to the body during his medical studies at Harvard College.

It was not until December that year that Dr. Morton entertained the idea of inhaling ether to numb the brain, rather than applying it directly to the area of surgical procedure. Dr. Morton tested the process for years, sometimes experimenting on himself, to assure the safety and effectiveness of ether inhalation in surgical procedures.

The rest is, quite literally, history. The renowned first use of ether as an anesthetic on December 16, 1846 was more than just a painless tumor removal. This process was the vanguard for more sophisticated procedures, as it allowed future surgeons to take their time operating on anesthetized patients and develop increasingly beneficial techniques. 

The History of the Ether Monument

Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Ether Dome Monument is located near the gate at Arlington and Marlborough Streets in the Public Garden. This 30-foot tall monument made of white Concord granite was designed by Messrs. Ware & Van Brunt and was completed on June 27, 1868.

A principle inscription on the front face of the monument reads: “To commemorate that the inhaling of ether causes insensibility to pain. First proved to the world at the Mass. General Hospital in Boston, October A.D. MDCCCXLV.”

Other features of the memorial include four lions heads that spout water from each vertical face of its base, a depiction of the Good Samaritan story, and stories of compassion in bas-relief: (1) A patient under the influence of ether undergoing a surgical operation, (2) The angel of mercy descending to relieve suffering humanity, (3) A wounded soldier under the hands of surgeons in a field hospital, and (4) An allegory of the triumph of science.

A fitting tribute to a wonderful discovery!

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