The successful use of ether to anesthetize patients was the first great milestone in the history of surgical anesthesia. But the discovery might have occurred earlier, and medical history written differently, but for a scientific error by another physician, according to an article in the January issue of Anesthesia & Analgesia, official journal of the International Anesthesia Research Society (IARS).
In the new article, Martha E. Stone and colleagues of Harvard Medical School offer an account of Elton Romeo Smilie and his near-miss as the discoverer of ether anesthesia. The article, drawn from research by the historian Richard J. Wolfe, suggests that Smilie might actually have been the first to use ether to anesthetize patients—only he didn't realize that ether was the cause of the anesthetic effect.
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"Few discoveries in medicine have been as revolutionary as the discovery of the anesthetizing properties of ether," comments Dr. Steven L. Shafer of Columbia University, Editor-in-Chief of Anesthesia & Analgesia. That discovery is attributed to the Boston dentist William T.G. Morton, who famously demonstrated ether's anesthetizing properties on October 16, 1846, at the Massachusetts General Hospital. The event was reported by Dr. Henry J. Bigelow in the Boston Medical Surgical Journal a month later. Bigelow concluded that the discovery of ether anesthesia "promises to be one of the most important discoveries of the age."
A medical doctor who mainly did tooth extractions, Smilie was also searching for a way to produce unconsciousness for surgery. He focused on opium, but believed that it had to be inhaled—possibly influenced by the well-known effects of smoking opium. Smilie chose to make opium available as an inhaled intoxicant by mixing it with a volatile chemical: ether. As he had hoped, his patients lost consciousness, and he was able to perform tooth extractions and other surgeries. He wrote about his experiences in a letter to the Boston Medical Surgical Journal, published a few weeks before Dr. Bigelow's report.
Although he had performed extensive experiments with ether volatilization of opium, Smilie did not consider the possibility that ether itself caused surgical insensibility. In retrospect, he could have made the discovery by performing a simple scientific experiment—comparing the effects of ether alone versus ether plus opium.
Once ether was identified as the responsible drug, Smilie graciously acknowledged Morton as the discoverer. Smilie wrote that he would not become "one of those parasitic growths, which by extent of foliage seemingly endeavor to conceal the connection of fruit with the legitimate branch."
Morton made little money from the discovery of ether, and died heavily in debt from the costs of litigation to defend his claim to the discovery of anesthesia. Recognizing his own intellectual error, and allowing Morton to claim the discovery, permitted Dr. Smilie to return to his medical practice. He eventually moved to California, where he treated Gold Rush miners, wrote case reports, and penned two science fiction novels.