Undergoing a surgical or dental procedure has come a long way from what it had been a number of years ago. This has been possible because of the dedication and will power of a select few, who put their lives at stake to find a pain-free way of doing surgeries.
Horace Wells was born on 21stJanuary 1815. Born to a well to do family, Wells was the first among three children and very well-educated. When he was 18, he joined the school of dentistry in Boston. At the age of 23, he authored a book by name “An Essay on Teeth” where he described the development of teeth and also advocated the use of toothbrush to prevent major tooth related problems.
After his education, Wells started his practice as a dentist in Connecticut on 4thApril 1836. He was so passionate and good at his work that he soon developed a roaring practice and the elite of the society visited his clinic.
It was on the 10thof December 1844, that Wells first witnessed the effects of nitrous oxide also known as laughing gas in a presentation called “A Grand Exhibition of the Effects Produced by Inhaling Nitrous Oxide, Exhilarating or Laughing Gas.” This demonstration took place in the Union Hall, Hartford. During this, Gardner Colton intoxicated a local shop clerk by name Samuel Cooley, with nitrous oxide. Once he was under the influence of the gas, Cooley kept jumping around in a daze, laughing uncontrollably. While he was doing this, he repeatedly struck his legs on the bench sustaining abrasions and wounds. Once he came out of the influence of the gas, Wells went and spoke to Cooley about the effect of the gas and injuries on him. Cooley could not remember what he had done when he was under the influence of nitrous oxide and also could not recollect how he had got the wounds on his legs. It is described in books as –
At length Sam Cooley took the gas and proved to be an interesting subject. He careened about the stage in an extraordinary manner when suddenly he espied in the audience an imaginary enemy and sprung over the ropes and after him. The innocent spectator, frightened out of his seven wits, summarily abandoned his seat and fled, running like a deer around the hall with Cooley in hot pursuit, the audience on its feet applauding in delight. The terrified victim finally dodged, vaulted over a settee and rushed down an aisle, Cooley a close second. Half way to the front the pursuer came to himself, looked about foolishly, and amid shouts of laughter and applause slid into his seat near to Dr. [Horace] Wells. Presently he was seen to roll up his trousers and gaze in a puzzled sort of way at an excoriated and bloody leg…
Wells was very impressed by this and immediately thought of the uses of the gas in dentistry. He knew that he could really impress his clientele if he could give them a pain-free experience during the process of tooth extraction. So, the following day he decided to test the gas on himself. He asked Colton to come over and make him inhale the nitrous oxide. Once he was under its influence, he asked his fellow dentist John Riggs to extract his tooth. The experiment turned out to be successful because he neither experienced any pain nor did he remember getting his tooth extracted.
Following the successful self-experiment, Wells experimented on 12 other patients successfully. Having been fully convinced about his discovery, he decided to display the action of the nitrous oxide to everyone. He took the help of his student and friend William Morton for the demonstration. The display was carried out at the Massachusetts General Hospital to medical students and faculty on January 20th,1845. A volunteer was chosen, and he was administered the nitrous oxide gas. Next Wells attempted to remove a took. However, the patient moaned as if in pain. The medical students present laughed aloud and screamed calling him “humbug” and “swindler” even though the patient tried to explain that he was not actually in pain. Some references even suggest that the gas was not administered properly. He was deeply embarrassed and returned home. He himself summarizes the incident –
A large number of students, with several physicians, met to see the operation performed – one of their number to be the patient. Unfortunately for the experiment, the gas-bag was by mistake withdrawn much too soon, and he was but partially under its influence when the tooth was extracted. He testified that he experienced some pain, but not as much as usually attends the operation. As there was no other patient present, that the experiment might be repeated, and as several expressed their opinion that it was a humbug affair (which in fact was all the thanks I got for this gratuitous service) I accordingly left the next morning for home.”
Not being able to face the humiliation on April 7th, 1845, Wells decided to dissolve his practice and referred all his patients to Riggs, his friend who removed his tooth.
In October 1846, Morton(Well’s student and friend) gave a successful demonstration of ether anaesthesia in Boston. Following Morton’s demonstration, Wells published a letter accounting his successful trials in 1844 in an attempt to claim the discovery of anaesthesia. His efforts in establishing his claim were unsuccessful.
After ending his dental practice in late 1845, Wells became a salesman of shower baths. However the incident left a permanent scar on him and he never fully recovered. He often went into fits of depression. He constantly inhaled nitrous oxide and chloroform to forget his failure. He became an addict. On his 33rd birthday, January 21, 1848, Wells after inhaling the gas, rushed out into the street and threw sulfuric acid on two prostitutes. He was sent to prison. As the influence of the drug waned, Wells’ mind started to clear. He realised the terrible mistake he had done. On January 24, 1848, Wells then committed suicide in his cell, slitting his left femoral artery with a razor after inhaling an analgesic dose of chloroform to blot out the pain. He was 33 years old.