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, n.d., p. 11