William Morton and Anesthesia

William Morton (1819-1868) was a New Englander who, as a boy, wanted to be a doctor. However, he was poor, and this dream became unrealistic financially. Therefore, Morton switched his goal to becoming a dentist. He soon married but kept his ambition of becoming a doctor one day.

From Dentistry to Medicine

As a dentist, Morton developed one of the best sets of false teeth of his day. The only problem was that in order to use the false teeth, he had to pull all the teeth in someone’s mouth. Naturally, people did not like this idea, not so much because they loved all of their rotten teeth, but because they did not want to experience all of the pain of losing so many teeth at once. Rather than thinking his false teeth was a terrible idea, Morton began to look for a way to lessen the pain medically so he could pull teeth.

From the money he made as a dentist, Morton went to medical school. He enrolled at Harvard medical school. While at the school, Morton witness an amputation. During the surgery, the patient was writhing and screaming in agony. This was disconcerting for many students, including Morton. This experience convinced Morton to focus not just on painless dental surgery but to remove pain from all surgeries.


Morton’s first attempt at anesthesia was with ether. Through the help of a friend Charles Jackson, he quickly realized that diethyl ether was the best choice for putting people to sleep. Morton experiment on animals and finally on himself to see if the gas would work. Next, Morton used the gas to put a patient asleep while pulling a tooth. Morton then proceeded to pull the tooth out, and the patient was shocked to see that the tooth was removed while he was unconscious.

Morton’s next goal was to use his methods on actual surgery. To do this, he had to convince the head of the Massachusetts General Hospital to use ether. The doctor was concerned about his reputation if something went wrong but granted permission.

The Operation & End

On the day of the operation, Morton put the patient to sleep with ether, and the doctor was able to perform the surgery without a problem. When the patient awoke, he said he felt no pain. With this success, the practice of anesthesia spread all over the USA and Europe.

Morton patented his idea but never really receive compensation. The actual process was easy to copy, and many doctors did it without permission. In addition, one of Morton’s friends, Charles Jackson, claimed that he invented Morton’s method. This battle with a former friend cause Morton to spend most of his time proving that he was the inventor of this method.

The stress of this battle took a toll on Morton’s health, and he would die from a stroke. His enemy Jackson would suffer a similar break down in his mental health. Thus was the tragic end to two men who made a significant contribution to medicine.

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