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Horace Wells and Anæsthesia


A CENTURY ago, on January 24, 1848, one of the principal actors in the drama of anæsthesia died in prison by his own hand at the age of thirty-three. Born at Hartford, Vermont, on January 21, 1815, Horace Wells studied dentistry at Boston, and practised at Hartford, Connecticut. The idea of inhalation anæsthesia occurred to him on December 10, 1844, during an exhibition of laughing ‘gas by a New York showman, Gardner Quincy Colton, when a young man, Sam Cooley by name, under the influence of the gas severely bruised his leg without apparently feeling any pain. The following day Wells had a troublesome wisdom tooth painlessly removed under nitrous oxide. In January 1845 he went to Boston to demonstrate his discovery at the Harvard Medical School. The experiment went wrong, and the young dentist left the theatre with the words ‘‘charlatan and ‘‘humbug ringing in his ears. His physical and mental health now began to decline. The last chapter of his life is steeped in obscurity. On January 24, 1848, in Tombs Prison, New York, he committed suicide under chloroform anæsthesia—slashing his femoral artery with a razor. In 1864 the American Dental Association, and in 1870 the American Medical Association, declared Wells to be the real discoverer of anæsthesia.

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Horace Wells and Anæsthesia. Nature 161, 123–124 (1948).

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