Items from the Anesthesia Collections


Scalpel and Probe, 1846

This Laundy scalpel and probe were the surgical instruments used by Dr. John Collins Warren at the first public operation employing ether anesthesia at the Massachusetts General Hospital on October 16, 1846. Dr. Warren presented the instruments along with his card to photographer Josiah Johnson Hawes, in gratitude for recording some of the earliest anesthesia operations. Hawes was to have been present to photograph the first demonstration but the thought of the sight of blood kept him away, and Dr. Warren often joked with him about this.

Death Mask of Dr. Horace Wells, circa 1875

In 1844, Horace Wells (1815-1848), a dentist in Hartford, began to experiment with the possibilities of reducing or alleviating pain during dental surgery using nitrous oxide. During a demonstration at Harvard Medical School, however, Wells was denounced when his patient experienced pain due to an insufficient inhalation of the gas. In October 1846, William T. G. Morton, using ether, demonstrated the first successful public surgical operation under anesthesia at Massachusetts General Hospital. A lengthy legal battle over the rights to the discovery of anesthesia between Wells, Morton, and other claimants followed. Impoverished, in jail, and in despair, Horace Wells took his own life in January 1848.

This bronze mask was made, probably in 1875, from a plaster original taken at Dr. Wells’ death. It was used by sculptor Truman Howe Bartlett as the basis for his statue of Horace Wells which stands in Hartford today.

The Origins of Anesthesia
Items from the Anesthesia Collections