Archives Center, National Museum of American History

Guide to the Morton Family Collection, 1849-1911

Collection ID:
Morton, William Thomas Green, 1819-? (dentist)
Morton, William J.
Collection is in
. Some materials in
Physical Description:
2.3 Cubic feet
7 boxes
The collection documents through correspondence, reprints of general articles, reports of Congressional committees, and materials relating to a U.S. patent and testimonials Morton's claims to priority in the discovery of the anesthetic properties of ether in medical and surgical procedures.

Scope and Contents
Scope and Contents
The material in the collection was gathered by Morton's son, W. J. Morton, in defense of his father's character and work, and presented to the Smithsonian Institution by him on April 2, 1918. It includes correspondence, reprints of articles from medical and surgical journals, other publications, reports of congressional committees, materials relating to securing a U.S. patent, and testimonials on behalf of Morton's claim. Many of the articles and other publications relate to the controversy concerning priority in discovery of the anesthetic properties of ether in connection with medical and surgical procedures. A number are the work of contemporaries. Much of the material now in the collection is in reasonably good condition, particularly the books and many of the reprints. Many handwritten documents however show evidence of extensive water damage and some are illegible.
A report of a Smithsonian committee on condemnation on November 1, 1927 recommended destruction of' three trunks in which the Morton materials were shipped. These trunks had been stored in a damp cellar before coming to the Museum and many of the documents were so damaged as to be illegible. Such papers were destroyed with the trunks. Another committee on condemnation was appointed in April, 1955 to report on the disposal of duplicate printed materials in the Division of Medicine and Public Health no longer needed for either exhibit or study purposes. On April 20, 1955 this committee recommended transfer of such material from the Morton collection to the Armed Forces Medical Library for distribution to medical libraries throughout the country through their exchange services.
The material has been organized into two series: (1) letters and documents arranged alphabetically by subject and (2) publications arranged alphabetically by author if known or by subject if no author is designated. A bound volume of many of the pamphlets available as single publications is part of the collection. The numbers found at the end immediately following the # are the numbers stamped on the publications when they were received by the Archives Center.
Several of the documents which are listed as part of the collection are on exhibit in "Pain and Its Relief," an exhibition at the National Museum of American History. Several others, listed in the accession file or a descriptive list were not among the materials received by the Archives Center, and have been listed as missing. Where descriptive cards prepared by an intern were sent to the Archives Center, they have been filed with the pertinent document.

The collection is arranged in two series.
Series 1: Letters and Documents, 1849-1866
Series 2: Publications, 1849-1911

Biographical / Historical
Biographical / Historical
William Thomas Green Morton was born on August 9, 1819 in Charlton, a village in Worcester Co., Massachusetts. He was the son of James Morton, a farmer of Charlton, and his wife Rebecca, a daughter of William Needham of Charlton.
Young William had a New England common school education at Northfield and Leicester Academies. In 1836 at the age of seventeen he went to work as a clerk and salesman in various business houses in Boston. Finding such employment of little interest, however, he enrolled in the College of Dental Surgery in Baltimore, Maryland in 1840. In the winter of 1842-1843, William Morton and Horace Wells, who had begun to practice dentistry in Hartford, Connecticut in 1836, practiced together in Boston. This partnership turned out to be unprofitable and was dissolved in the fall of 1843. Wells returned to Hartford; Morton stayed in Boston.
In March 1844 William Morton began studying medicine with Dr. Charles T. Jackson and later continued his studies at the Harvard Medical School. He also married in 1844. He did not complete Harvard's degree requirements but in 1852 was awarded an M.D. degree "honoris causa" by the Washington University of Medicine, later the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Baltimore.
During 1844 while the dentist and aspiring physician was studying with Dr. Jackson, Jackson demonstrated before his chemistry classes that inhalation of sulfuric ether causes loss of consciousness. William Morton who had continued his practice during his medical studies for financial reasons, was especially interested in the manufacture of artificial teeth and was, therefore, concerned with lessening the pain of extraction of roots. He had tried various methods such as intoxicants, opium and mesmerism but none was effective. Morton tried inhalation of sulfuric ether on himself and during the summer of 1846 he anaesthetized goldfish, a hen and his pet spaniel. They all recovered and the dentist was ready to use ether on patients. The painless extraction of an ulcerated tooth on September 30, 1846 was written up in the Boston Daily Journal of October 1, 1846. Following the newspaper accounts, Henry J. Bigelow, a Boston surgeon affiliated with Massachusetts General Hospital and John Collins Warren, the surgical chief at Massachusetts General invited Morton to demonstrate his discovery there. The removal of a tumor by Dr. Warren from the neck of a patient successfully anaesthetized by Dr. Morton on October 16, 1846 was followed the next day by a second successful anesthesia and surgery by Dr. George Hayward. After several weeks of further trials, H. J. Bigelow announced Morton's discovery in the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal on November 18, 1846.
On October 27, 1846, shortly after the first demonstration, Morton and Jackson applied for a patent which was issued November 12, 1846. They did not reveal that the anesthetic agent was sulfuric ether although it soon became apparent. On the application for patent it was labeled "Letheon". Patent No. 4848 was issued on November 12, 1846.
In 1847 a memorial to the Congress of the U.S. by the physicians and surgeons of Boston requested compensation to the discoverer of the anesthetic uses of ether, William T. G. Morton. Since this petition resulted in no action, Morton himself petitioned the Congress for financial reward. Two bills appropriating $200,000 for the discovery of practical anesthesia were introduced into three sessions of Congress but none passed. Supporters of Charles T. Jackson, Horace Wells and Crawford W. Long, each of whom had participated to some extent in the discovery of inhalation anesthesia, started a controversy which continued for years. Congressional committee and subcommittee concern dragged on for nearly two decades without fruition. Dr. Morton's last twenty years were spent in controversy and litigation although several of the plans for compensating him resulted in honor if not in funds. He died of apoplexy at forty-nine, on July 15, 1869.
Among early honors awarded to Dr. Morton was the Montyon Prize of 5,000 French francs awarded jointly to him and Dr. Jackson by the French Academy of Sciences. Morton refused the award saying the discovery for which it was granted was his and his alone. A testimonial of $1,000 from the trustees of the Massachusetts General Hospital was accepted. He received the Order of Wasa of Sweden and Norway and the Order of St. Vladimir of Russia for his contribution to science. There were testimonials by the medical profession in several cities. His name is inscribed among those of illustrious sons of Massachusetts in the Dome of the Hall of Representatives in the State House in Boston and among those on the facade of the Boston Public Library.
Crawford Long, Horace Wells and Charles T. Jackson all played a part in the discovery of surgical anesthesia but William T. G. Morton became the best known of the contenders for priority of discovery. The controversy among them continued for years and was never clearly resolved.
Dr. William H. Welch, Johns Hopkins University Medical School, gave a definitive address at the Massachusetts General Hospital on the introduction of surgical anesthesia on the 62nd anniversary of Ether Day (October 16, 1908). According to Dr. Welch, Dr. Crawford Long of Jefferson, Jackson Co. Georgia in March 1842 removed a small tumor from the neck of a patient anaesthetized with ether, and performed eight more minor operations under ether in the next Lcour years. He delayed publication however until several years after the universal acceptance of surgical anesthesia and published details are sketchy. Until Long's work became known, Horace Wells was generally credited with first using inhalation anesthesia--nitrous oxide. The failure of an important experiment resulted in Wells abandoning his experiments and withdrawing from the practice of dentistry. He later took his own life. Dr. Welch considered Wells' work "...a direct and important link in the chain of discovery which led ... to the universal adoption of surgical anesthesia."1 After careful review of the evidence and the opinions of Morton's medical contemporaries, Dr. Welch gave major honors for the discovery to Morton. 2
1. Welch, William H., M..D., A Consideration of the Introduction of Surgical Anesthesia, The Barta Press, Boston, undated, p. 11
2. Ibid.

Sheila Pinsker and Robert S. Harding
Immediate Source of Acquisition
Donated by William J. Morton, son of William T. G. Morton in 1921.
Custodial History
The collection was transferred form the Division of History to Medical Sciences (now the Division of Medicine and Science) on August 20, 1984.
Processing Information
Processed by Sheila Pinsker and Robert S. Harding, archivist, 1986.

Using the Collection
Conditions Governing Access
Collection is open for research.
Preferred Citation
Morton Family Collection, 1849-1911, Archives Center, National Museum of American History
Conditions Governing Use
Collection items available for reproduction, but the Archives Center makes no guarantees concerning copyright restrictions. Other intellectual property rights may apply. Archives Center cost-recovery and use fees may apply when requesting reproductions.

Keywords table of terms and types.
Keyword Terms Keyword Types
Dentists Occupation Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Medicine Topical Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Anesthesia Topical Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Ether Topical Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Medical sciences Topical Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid

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