Dr. Horace Wells (1815 – 1848)
Born in Vermont, Horace Wells studied dentistry in Boston and began practicing in Hartford, Connecticut in 1836. He opened his first office on Main Street. A talented practitioner, Wells soon became one of Hartford’s most successful dentists.
On the evening of December 10, 1844, Wells attended an exhibition in Hartford where members of the audience were administered nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, and would then provide the evening’s “entertainment” while under its influence. Wells noted that one such individual who was under the influence of the nitrous oxide had cut his leg during his antics but, feeling no pain, was unaware of it. He immediately grasped the implications of his observation and was determined to explore its possibilities.
The following day, Wells invited his friends Dr. John Riggs and Dr. Gardner Colton to his office. He asked the gentleman to administer nitrous oxide to him and then extract a tooth that had been bothering him. Low and behold, under the influence of nitrous oxide Wells felt no pain during the procedure. After this, both Wells and Riggs used the gas frequently to painlessly extract teeth and, in 1845, Wells traveled to Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital to demonstrate the use of the nitrous oxide in a surgical operation. Unfortunately, Wells did not administer enough gas to the patient, and he cried out in pain. The audience booed and jeered, and Wells departed disheartened.
Shortly thereafter, Dr. William Morton, who had been associated with Wells for a short time and with whom Wells shared the information he had gained in studying anesthesia, went to Boston. He began working with Dr. Jackson to manufacture an anesthesia that combined nitrous oxide gas and ether. This formula was successfully used in operations at Massachusetts General, and the two established themselves at the hospital as the discoverers of the principle of anesthesia.
During this time, Wells traveled to Paris to meet with members of the scientific community. There his claims to the discovery of anesthesia and his intent to give it to the world without expecting to derive any monetary benefit were fully recognized. Upon his return, he found that Morton and Jackson had placed patents on their product with the intent to create a monopoly on this life-saving and merciful boon to mankind. Wells disclaimed their rights to the patents on the grounds that their product was nothing more than his original nitrous oxide compound. Of a highstrung and sensitive nature, Wells became increasingly unstable and distraught. He soon began to inhale nitrous oxide and chloroform both experimentally and to ease his stress.
By January 1848, Wells had moved to New York City where he practiced from an office in his residence at 120 Chambers Street. On January 21 (Wells’s 33rd birthday), while under the influence of chloroform, Wells was arrested for throwing acid at two women on Broadway and was taken to “the Tombs.” The following day Wells was permitted to return to his home to retrieve a razor and other personal necessities. Unknown to his guard, he also retrieved a bottle of chloroform. He attended church services in the Tombs on Sunday and, feeling guilty of his terrible crime, later that day he administered to himself the chloroform and cut the major artery in his leg, thus, committing suicide. Wells was posthumously recognized by the medical community for discovering anesthesia.
Originally buried in Hartford’s Old North Cemetery, in 1908 Wells’s son Charles had his parents disinterred from Old North and reinterred at Cedar Hill Cemetery. He also commissioned sculptor Louis Potter to create a fitting memorial to his father. Historically significant, the resulting monument is unique to cemetery artwork in that it expresses human triumph rather than loss and sorrow.
In 2002, Cedar Hill Cemetery Foundation launched a program to restore its major bronze sculptures. With support from the Horace Wells Club of Connecticut, the Hartford Medical and Dental Societies, the Connecticut Dental Association, Aetna Foundation, and the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, the Foundation was able to restore Dr. Horace Wells’s memorial, including replacing the side sculptures, which had been stolen more than 20 years earlier. The restoration was completed in 2004.
Enotes – Encyclopedia of Drugs and Addictive Substances. Accessed at http://www.enotes.com/drugs-substances-encyclopedia/nitrous-oxide/overview in August 2010.
Fenster, Julie M. Ether Day: The Strange Tale of America’s Greatest Medical Discovery and the Haunted Men Who Made It. New York: HarperCollins, 2001.
UCLA School of Dentistry. Accessed at http://www.dent.ucla.edu/pic/members/carranza/anesthesia.html in August 2010.
Photo credit: Horace Wells, Public Domain; Wells Memorial, Cedar Hill Cemetery