The Origins of Anesthesia
One of Boston's great moments in the history of medicine came on October 16, 1846, as one of the most famous surgical operations in history-the groundbreaking first public demonstration of the use of ether as an anesthetic-was performed at Massachusetts General Hospital.. Dr. John Collins Warren removed a small tumor from the neck of Gilbert Abbott after an anesthetic agent provided by dentist William T. G. Morton had been employed. Although described in his diary as just "an interesting operation," Warren was quick to see the remarkable advantages to both surgeon and patient and then championed the cause of etherization through his work and publications. In his own account of the event printed a few weeks later in the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, John Collins Warren said of his patient, "Being asked immediately afterwards whether he had suffered much, he said that he had felt as if his neck had been scratched; but subsequently, when inquired of by me, his statement was, that he did not experience pain at the time, although aware that the operation was proceeding."
Books, pamphlets, artifacts, letters, and other items from the first days of the employment of ether anesthesia comprise another rich subject area at the Countway Library. A great portion of this documentation concerns the so-called ether controversy, the debate over who really was entitled to claim the discovery of anesthesia, and includes a unique set of court testimonies of John Collins Warren and other eyewitnesses to the 1846 procedure. The scalpel and surgical probe used during the Gilbert Abbott operation are also housed here at the Countway, as is the famous painting by Robert C. Hinckley, depicting this historic event.