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1844–1846: The Discovery and Demonstration of Anesthesia

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The Wondrous Story of Anesthesia


Gardner Colton, a Columbia University medical student, began the discovery of anesthesia by offering (for pay) a public entertainment, a demonstration of the intoxicating effect of nitrous oxide. The dentist Horace Wells attended a demonstration in Hartford, observing that while inebriated, Samuel Cooley injured himself, apparently not feeling the injury as it occurred. Seeking a means to practice painless dentistry, Wells asked Colton to attend his office the next day, and to administer nitrous oxide to Wells while an associate, John Riggs, pulled one of Wells’ teeth. Wells felt no pain, and then gave nitrous oxide to several of his patients, practicing painless dentistry on most of them. His success prompted him to approach the great surgeon Warren at the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), requesting that he allow Wells to attempt a public demonstration at the Harvard Medical School. The demonstration failed, the audience denouncing Wells for his “humbug.”

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Eger II, E., Saidman, L., Westhorpe, R. (2014). 1844–1846: The Discovery and Demonstration of Anesthesia. In: Eger II, E., Saidman, L., Westhorpe, R. (eds) The Wondrous Story of Anesthesia. Springer, New York, NY.

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