Cambridge Sketches
by Frank Preston Stearns

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Dr. W. T. G. Morton

A distinguished American called upon Charles Darwin, and in the course of conversation asked him what he considered the most important discovery of the nineteenth century. To which Mr. Darwin replied, after a slight hesitation: “Painless surgery.” He thought this more beneficial in its effects on human affairs than either the steam-engine or the telegraph. Let it also be noted that he spoke of it as an invention, rather than as a discovery.

The person to whom all scientific men now attribute the honor of this discovery, or invention, is Dr. William T. G. Morton; and, although in that matter he was not without slight assistance from others, as well as predecessors in the way of tentative experiments, yet it was Doctor Morton who first proved the possibility of applying anaesthesia to surgical operations of a capital order; and it was he who pushed his theory to a practical success. It may also be admitted that Columbus could not have discovered the Western Hemisphere without the assistance of Ferdinand and Isabella; but it was Columbus who divined the existence of the American continent, and afterwards proved his theory to be true. There is an underlying similarity between the labors and lives of Columbus and Morton, in spite of large superficial differences.

William Thomas Greene Morton was born August 19, 1819, in Charlton, Massachusetts, a small town in the Connecticut Valley. His father was a flourishing farmer and lived in an old-fashioned but commodious country house, with a large square chimney in the centre of it. William was not only a bright but a very dexterous boy, and was sent to school in the academy at Northfield, and afterwards at Leicester. It is a family tradition that he early showed an experimental tendency by brewing concoctions of various kinds for the benefit of his young companions, and that he once made his sister deathly sick in this manner. His father, finding him a more energetic boy than the average of farmers’ sons, advised him to go to Boston, to seek whatever fortune he could find there.

This resulted in his obtaining employment, probably through the Charlton clergyman, in the office of a religious periodical, the Christian Witness; but the situation, though a comfortable one, was not adapted to his tastes, and from some unexplained attraction to the profession, he decided to study dentistry. This he accordingly did, graduating at the Baltimore Dental College in 1842. He then engaged an office in Boston, and soon acquired a lucrative practice. He was an uncommonly handsome man, with a determined look in his eye, but also a kindly expression and pleasing manners, which may have brought him more practice than his skill in dentistry,—although that was also good.

The following year he was married to Miss Elizabeth Whitman, of Farmington, Connecticut, whose uncle, at least, had been a member of Congress,—a highly genteel family in that region. In fact, her parents objected to Doctor Morton on account of his profession, and it was only after his promise to study medicine and become a regular practitioner that they consented to the match. Accordingly, Doctor Morton in the autumn of 1844 commenced a course at the Harvard Medical-School.

Mrs. Morton was a handsome young woman, with a fair face and elegant figure. It would have been difficult to find a better looking couple anywhere in the suburbs, and with good health and strength it seemed as if fortune would certainly smile on them. Doctor Morton built a summer cottage at Wellesley, where the public library now stands, and planted a grove of trees about it; but a mere earthly paradise could not satisfy him. He was not an ambitious man, or he would not have chosen the dental profession; but the food he lived on was not of this world. He had the daring spirit, the speculative temperament, and restless energy of the born discoverer. Already he had made improvements in the manufacture of artificial teeth. He was the first, or one of the first, to recognize the importance of chemistry in connection with the practice of medicine. He had no sooner returned to Boston than he commenced the study of chemistry with Dr. Charles T. Jackson, spending from six to ten hours a week in his laboratory; and he thus became acquainted with the properties and peculiarities of most of the chemical ingredients known at that time.

Mrs. Morton soon discovered with awe and trepidation that she had married no ordinary man. That he had a real skeleton in his closet was to have been expected; but, besides this, there were rows of mysterious-looking bottles, with substances in them quite different from the medicines which were prescribed by the doctors in Farmington. He tried experiments on their black water-spaniel and nearly killed him; and even descended to fishes and insects. He would muse for hours by himself, and if she asked him what he was thinking of he gave her no explanation that she could understand. Although he was so attractive and pleasing, he did not care much for human society. [Footnote: McClure’s Magazine, September, 1896.] He was kind and good to her, and with that she was content. A more devoted wife, or faithful mother, has not been portrayed in poetry or romance.

These phenomena in Doctor Morton’s early life remind one of certain processes in the budding of a flower. They indicate a tendency to some object which perhaps was not at the time wholly clear to the man himself. Impelled by the humanitarian spirit of the age, he moved forward with a clear eye and firm hand to grasp the opportunity when it arrived,—nor was it long delayed.

In considering the discovery of etherization we ought to eliminate all evidence of an ex parte character, unless it is supported circumstantially; but there is no reason why we should disbelieve Mrs. Morton’s statement that her husband made experiments with sulphuric ether; that his clothes smelt of it; and that he tried to persuade laboring-men to allow him to experiment upon them with it. As Dr. J. Collins Warren says: “Anaesthesia had been the dream of many surgeons and scientists, but it had been classed with aerial navigation and other improbable inventions.” [Footnote: Anaesthesia in Surgery, 15.] As long ago as 1818 Faraday had discovered the chief properties of ether, with the exception of its effect in deadening sensibility. In 1836 Dr. Morrill Wyman and Dr. Samuel Parkman had experimented with it on themselves at the Massachusetts Hospital, but without taking a sufficient quantity to produce unconsciousness. It was actually employed in 1842 by Dr. Crawford W. Long, at the University of Pennsylvania, in some minor cases of surgery, but he would seem to have lost confidence in his method and afterwards abandoned it.

In December, 1844, Horace Wells, a dentist of Hartford, had a tooth extracted by his own request while under the influence of nitrous oxide; and the following month he came to Boston, and having made his discovery known, an operation at the hospital was undertaken with his assistance, but the patient screamed, and it proved a failure so far as anaesthesia was concerned.

From these facts we readily draw the following conclusions: That the discovery of painless surgery was essentially a practical affair for which only a slight knowledge of chemistry was required; that it was not a discovery made at hap-hazard, but one that necessitated a skilful hand and a clear understanding of the subject; and that the supposition which has sometimes been advanced that Doctor Morton was necessarily indebted to Doctor Jackson for a knowledge of the hypnotic effect of ether is wholly gratuitous.

We will now quote directly from Doctor Warren’s lecture on “The Influence of Anaesthesia on the Surgery of the Nineteenth Century,” delivered before the American Surgical Association in 1897:

“Morton having acquainted himself by conversation with Mr. Metcalf and Mr. Burnett, both leading druggists, as to purity and qualities of ether, and having also conversed with Mr. Wightman, a philosophical instrument- maker, and with Doctor Jackson as to inhaling apparatus, proceeded to experiment upon himself. After inhaling the purer quality of ether from a handkerchief he awoke to find that he had been insensible for seven or eight minutes.

“The same day a stout, healthy man came to his office suffering from great pain and desiring to have a tooth extracted. Dreading the pain, ho accepted willingly Morton’s proposal to use ether, and the tooth was extracted without suffering. Morton reported his success the next day to Jackson, and conversed with him as to the best methods of bringing his discovery to the attention of the medical profession and the public. Jackson pointed out that tooth-pulling was not a sufficient test, as many people claimed to have teeth pulled without pain. It was finally decided that the crucial test lay in a public demonstration in the operating theatre of a hospital in a surgical case.”

There is one statement in the above to which, according to our rules of literary procedure, we feel obliged to take exception,—that is, the statement concerning the interview between Morton and Jackson after the successful administration of ether to Morton’s patient. It is substantially Doctor Jackson’s own statement. Doctor Morton gave a wholly different account before the Congressional Committee of 1852. He said:

“I went to Doctor Jackson, told him what I had done, and asked him to give me a certificate that ether was harmless in its effects. This he positively refused to do. I then told him I should go to the principal surgeons and have the question thoroughly tried. I then called on Doctor Warren, who promised me an early opportunity to try the experiment, and soon after I received the invitation....

Now as these are both ex parte statements, and as there are no witnesses on either side, according to the rule we have already established, they will both have to be eliminated. [Footnote: The Congressional Committee of 1852 did not find Doctor Jackson’s report of this interview trustworthy.] Doctor Morton, however, says previously that it was Doctor Hayward with whom he consulted as to the best method of bringing his discovery before the world.

In the consideration of this subject we come upon a man of rare character—rare even, in his profession. Dr. John C. Warren was the perfect type of an Anglo-Saxon surgeon. His courage and dexterity were fully equalled by his kindness and sympathy for the patient. Cool and collected in the most trying emergencies, it has been said of him that he never performed a capital operation without feeling a pain in his heart; and the evidence of this was marked upon his face, so that it is even visible in the photographs of him. He deserved to have his portrait painted by Rubens. In 1847 Dr. Mason Warren published a review of etherization, in which he makes this important statement:

“In the autumn of 1846 Dr. W. T. G. Morton, a dentist in Boston, a person of great ingenuity, patience, and pertinacity of purpose, called on me several times to show some of his inventions. At that time I introduced him to Dr. John C. Warren. Shortly after, in October, I learned from Doctor Warren that Doctor Morton had visited him and informed him that he was in possession of or had discovered a means of preventing pain, which he had proved in dental operations, and wished Doctor Warren to give him an opportunity in a surgical operation. After some questions on the subject in regard to its action and the safety of it, Doctor Warren promised that he would do so.... The operation was therefore deferred until Friday, October 16, when the ether was administered by Doctor Morton, and the operation performed by Doctor Warren.”

It was eminently fitting that Dr. John C. Warren should be the one to introduce painless surgery to the medical profession. Next to Morton he deserves the highest credit for the revolution which it effected: a glorious revolution, fully equal to that of 1688. His quick recognition of Morton’s character, and the confidence he placed in him as the man of the hour, deserve the highest commendation. Doctor Warren had invited Doctor Jackson to attend this critical experiment with sulphuric ether at the Massachusetts Hospital; but he declined with the trite excuse that he was obliged to go out of town. This has been generally interpreted by the medical profession as a lack of courage on Jackson’s part to face the music, but it may also have been owing to his jealousy of Morton.

This happened October 16th, and on November 13th, Dr. C. T. Jackson wrote to M. Elie de Beaumont, a member of the French Academy, this remarkable letter:

“I request permission to communicate through your medium to the Academy of Sciences a discovery which I have made, and which I believe important for the relief of suffering humanity, as well as of great value to the surgical profession. Five or six years ago I noticed the peculiar state of insensibility into which the nervous system is thrown by the inhalation of the vapor of pure sulphuric ether, which I respired abundantly,—first by way of experiments, and afterwards when I had a severe catarrh, caused by the inhalation of chlorine gas. I have latterly made a useful application of this fact by persuading a dentist of this city to administer the vapor of ether to his patients, when about to undergo the operation of extraction of teeth. It was observed that persons suffered no pain in the operation, and that no inconvenience resulted from the administration of the vapor.”

It was the opinion of Robert Rantoul and other members of the Congressional Committee that Doctor Jackson suffered from a “heated and disordered imagination,” and that is the most charitable view that one can take of such a letter as this. Whatever may have been the result of Doctor Jackson’s investigations with sulphuric ether, it is certain that he added nothing to the scientific knowledge of his time in that respect; [Footnote: Edinburgh Medical Journal, April 1, 1857.] and if he persuaded Doctor Morton to make use of it, why was he not present to oversee his subordinate? also, why did he make a charge on his books a few days later against Doctor Morton of five hundred dollars for advice and information concerning the application of ether? It is not customary to charge subordinates for their service but to reward them. The two horns of this dilemma are sharp and penetrating.

In a later memorial of the same general tenor, which Doctor Jackson forwarded to Baron Humboldt, he stated that he had applied to other dentists in Boston to make the experiment of etherization, but found them unwilling to take the risk; but the names of the dentists have never been made public, nor did any such appear afterwards to testify in Doctor Jackson’s behalf.

Still more remarkable was the action of the French Academy of Arts and Sciences in these premises. The French Academy was founded by Richelieu, but abolished in the first French Revolution, with so many other enchanted phantasms. Napoleon re-established it, and gave it new life and vigor by a discriminating choice of membership; but it is a close corporation which renews itself by its own votes, and such a body of men is always in danger of becoming a mutual admiration society, and if this happens its public utility is at an end. In the present instance the action of the French Academy was illogical, unscientific, and mischievous.

Doctor Jackson’s letter was brought before that august body on January 18, 1847, but previous to that time Doctor Warren had written to Doctor Velpeau, an eminent French surgeon, concerning the success of etherization at the Massachusetts Hospital, and suggesting the use of it in the hospitals at Paris; and Doctor Velpeau referred to this fact at the meeting of January 18th. The contents of this letter have never been made public; but it is incredible that Doctor Jackson’s claim should have received any support from it. Nevertheless, the members of the French Academy decided to divide one of the Mouthyon prizes (of five thousand francs for great scientific discoveries) between Dr. W. T. G. Morton and Elie de Beaumont’s American friend, Dr. C. T. Jackson; and they conferred this particular favor on Dr. Jackson at his own representation, without one witness in his favor, and without making an inquiry into the circumstances of the discovery. Could the Northfield Academy of boys and girls have acted in a more heedless or unscientific manner?

After the justice of this decision had been questioned, the French Academy promulgated a defence of their previous action, of which the essence was that the scientific theory of Doctor Jackson was as essential to the discovery of etherization as the practical skill of Doctor Morton; that is, they attempted to decide a matter of fact by an a priori dogmatism. Was not the instruction that Doctor Morton received from the dental college in Baltimore also essential to the discovery,—and to go behind that,—what he learned at the primary school at Churiton? When learning is divorced from reason it becomes mere pedantry or sublimated ignorance, and is more dangerous to the community than unlettered ignorance can be.

This blunder of the French Academy had evil consequences for both Morton and Jackson; for it placed the latter in a false position towards the world, and brought about a collision between them which not only lasted during their lives, but was also carried on by their friends and relatives long afterwards. It is doubtful if Jackson would have contested Morton’s claim without European support.

With true dignity of character Doctor Morton declined to divide the Mouthyon prize with Doctor Jackson, and the French Academy accordingly had a large gold medal stamped in his honor, and as this did not exhaust the original donation, the remainder of the sum was expended on a highly ornamental case. The trustees of the Massachusetts Hospital partly subscribed and partly collected a thousand dollars which they presented to Doctor Morton in a handsome silver casket. The King of Sweden sent him the Cross of the Order of Wasa; and he also received the Cross of the Order of St. Vladimir from the Tsar of Russia. He was only twenty-seven years of age at this time.

The ensuing eight years of Morton’s life were spent in a desperate effort for recognition—recognition of the importance of his discovery and of his own merits as the discoverer. No one can blame him for this. As events proved, it would have been far better for him if he had finished his course at the medical-school and set up his sign in the vicinity of Beacon Street; but the wisest man can but dimly foresee the future. Doctor Morton had every reason to believe that there was a fortune to be made in etherization. He consulted Rufus Choate, who advised him to obtain a patent or proprietary right in his discovery. Hon. Caleb Eddy undertook to do this for him, and being supported by a sound opinion from Daniel Webster, easily obtained it. Now, however, Morton’s troubles began.

He exempted the Massachusetts Hospital from the application of his royalty, and it was only right that he should do so; but, unfortunately, it was the only large hospital where etherization was regularly practised. In order to extend its application Doctor Morton secured the services of three young physicians, practised them in the use of the gas, and paid them a thousand dollars each to go forth into the world as proselytes of his discovery; but they met everywhere with a cold reception, and were several times informed that if the Massachusetts Hospital enjoyed the use of etherization, other hospitals ought to have the same privilege; so that his enterprise proved of no immediate advantage.

The Mexican War was now at its height, and Doctor Morton offered the use of etherization to the government for a very small royalty, but his offer was declined by the Secretary of War. He soon discovered, however, that surgeons in the army and navy were making free use of it,—contrary to law and the rights of men. Individuals all over the country—dentists and surgeons—were doing the same thing; and it was more difficult to prevent this than to execute the game-laws. For such an order of affairs the decision of the French Academy was largely responsible, for if men only find a shadow of right on the side of self-interest, they are likely enough to take advantage of it.

Meanwhile Doctor Jackson, with a few friends and a large body of Homoeopaths who acted in opposition to the regulars of the Massachusetts Hospital, kept up a continual fusillade against Doctor Morton; but this did him little harm, for early in 1847 the trustees of the hospital decided, by a unanimous vote, that the honor of discovering etherization properly belonged to him.

Doctor Jackson questioned the justice of this decision, and applied for a reconsideration of the subject. Whereupon the subject was reconsidered the following year, and the same verdict rendered as before. Doctor Jackson then carried his case to the Boston Academy of Arts and Sciences, when Professor Agassiz asked him the pertinent question: “But, Doctor Jackson, did you make one little experiment?” adding drily, after receiving a negative reply: “It would have been better if you had.”

It is to be regretted that Doctor Jackson should have attacked Doctor Morton’s private life (which appears to have been fully as commendable as his own), and also that R. W. Emerson should have entered the lists in favor of his brother-in-law. In one of his later books Emerson designates Doctor Jackson as the discoverer of etherization. This was setting his own judgment above that of the legal and medical professions, and even above the French Academy; but Emerson had lived so long in intuitions and poetical concepts that he was not a fairly competent person to judge of a matter of fact. It is doubtful if he made use of the inductive method of reasoning during his life.

Doctor Morton sought legal advice in regard to the infringement of his patent rights; but he found that legal proceedings in such cases were very expensive, and was counselled to apply to Congress for redress and assistance. This seemed to him a good plan, for if he could exchange his rights in etherization for a hundred thousand dollars, he would be satisfied; but in the end it proved a Nessus shirt to strangle the life out of him. He soon found that Congress could not be moved by a sense of justice, but only by personal influence. He gave up his business in Boston and went to Washington with his family, but this soon exhausted his slender resources. Knowing devils informed him that if he wished to obtain a hundred thousand dollars from the government he would have to expend fifteen or twenty thousand in lobbying, but the idea of this was hateful to him, and he declined to make the requisite pledges.

The winter of 1850 and of 1851 passed without result, until finally in December of the latter year, Bissel, of Illinois, made a speech in Doctor Morton’s favor, calling attention to the fact that the government had been pirating his patent, and proposing that the subject be referred to a committee. Robert Rantoul seconded the motion, and the step was taken. It was considered better for the chances of success that the proposition should come from a Western man.

This committee continued its meeting throughout the winter and made a thorough-going examination of the question before it. The frankness and plain character of Doctor Morton’s testimony is much in his favor, and the description he gave of his own proceedings previous to the first operation in the Massachusetts Hospital show how hard he wrestled with his discovery,—wrestled like Jacob of old,—working half the night with an instrument-maker to devise a suitable apparatus for inhalation. Doctor Jackson and Horace Wells also presented their claims to the committee and were respectfully considered.

The report of this committee is a valuable document,—a study for young lawyers in the sifting of evidence,—and of itself a severe criticism on the judgment of the French Academy, which it considered at too great a distance to judge fairly of the circumstances attending the advent of painless surgery. The committee decided unanimously that Doctor Wells did not carry his experiments far enough to reach a decided result; that Doctor Jackson’s testimony was contradictory and not much to be depended on; and that the credit of discovering painless surgery properly appertained to Dr. W. T. G. Morton. They recommended an appropriation of a hundred thousand dollars to be given to Doctor Morton in return for the free use of etherization by the surgeons of the army and navy.

A hundred thousand dollars was little enough. The British Government paid thirty thousand pounds as a gratuity for the discovery of vaccination; and more recently a poor German student made a much larger sum by the invention of a drug which has since fallen into disuse. Half a million would not have been more than Morton deserved, and a hundred thousand might have been bestowed on Wells.

Doctor Morton must have thought now that the clouds were lifting for him at last; but they soon settled down darker than ever. The committee’s report was only printed towards the close of the session, and Congress, gone rabid over the Presidential election, neglected to consider it. Neither did it take further action the following winter. A year later a bill was introduced in the Senate for Doctor Morton’s relief, and was ably supported by Douglas, of Illinois, and Hale, of New Hampshire. It passed the Senate by a small majority, but was defeated by the “mud-gods" of the House—defeated by men who were pilfering the national treasury in sinecures for their relatives and supporters. In the history of our government I know of nothing more disgraceful than this,—except the exculpation of Brooks for his assault on Sumner.

Doctor Morton was a ruined man. His slender means had long since been exhausted, and he had been running in debt for the past two or three years, as Hawthorne did at the old manse. Even his house at Wellesley was mortgaged. His business was gone, and his health was shattered. He felt as a man does in an earthquake. The government could not have treated him more cruelly unless it had put him to death.

It was now, as a final resort, that he went to see President Pierce, always a kindly man, except where Kansas affairs were concerned; and Pierce advised him to bring a suit for infringement of his rights against a surgeon in the navy. Doctor Morton found a lawyer who was willing to take the risk for a large share of the profits, and gained his case. His house was saved, but he returned to Wellesley poorer than when he came to Boston to seek his fortune, a youth of eighteen.

There was great indignation at the Massachusetts Hospital when the result of Doctor Morton’s case before Congress was known there, and soon after his return an effort was made to raise a substantial testimonial for him. That noble-hearted physician, Dr. Henry I. Bowditch, interested himself so conspicuously in this that Doctor Morton named his youngest son for him.

A similar effort was made by the medical profession in New York city, and a sufficient sum obtained to render Doctor Morton moderately comfortable during the remainder of his earthly existence, and to educate his eldest son.

Doctor Morton’s health was too much shattered for professional work now, and he resigned himself to his fate. He raised cattle at Wellesley, and imported fine cattle as a healthful out-of-door occupation. In the autumn of 1862 he joined the Army of the Potomac as a volunteer surgeon, and applied ether to more than two thousand wounded soldiers during the battles of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and the Wilderness. At the same time Senator Wil- [*printer’s error—double line and missing text] revive the gratuity for Morton in Congress, but the decision of the French Academy was in men’s minds, and a vicious precedent proved stronger than reason.

I saw Doctor Morton for the last time about nine months before his death; and the impression his appearance made on me was indelible. He was walking in the path before his house with his eldest daughter, and he seemed like the victim of an old Greek tragedy—a noble Oedipus who had solved the Sphynx’s riddle, attended by his faithful Antigone.

In July, 1868, a torrid wave swept over the Northern States which carried off many frail and delicate persons in the large cities, and Doctor Morton was one of those who suffered from it. He happened to be in New York City at the time, and went to Central Park to escape the feeling of suffocation which oppressed him, but never returned alive. He now lies in Mount Auburn Cemetery, with a modest monument over his grave erected by his Boston friends, with this epitaph composed by Dr. Jacob Bigelow:


Preface  •  The Close of the War  •  Francis J. Child  •  Longfellow  •  Lowell  •  Cranch  •  T. G. Appleton  •  The Whip of the Sky  •  Pompeii  •  Doctor Holmes  •  Frank W. Bird, and the Bird Club  •  Sumner  •  Chevalier Howe  •  The War Governor  •  The Colored Regiments  •  Emerson’s Tribute to George L. Stearns  •  Elizur Wright  •  Dr. W. T. G. Morton  •  William T. G. Morton  •  Leaves From a Roman Diary  •  My Last Visit to the Longfellows  •  Centennial Contributions  •  The Emerson Centennial  •  The Hawthorne Centennial  •  Hawthorne and Hamlet

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