The Ether Monument in Boston

Jun 19, 2023 0 comments

In a corner in Boston's Public Garden, near the intersection of Arlington Street and Marlborough Street, stands an obscure monument that commemorates a medical breakthrough—the use of ether as an anesthetic. At the top of the monument is a sculpture depicting the famous Biblical story of the Good Samaritan caring an injured stranger he met on the road.

The first public demonstration of ether as an anesthesia was conducted at Massachusetts General Hospital in 1846 by Boston dentist William Thomas Green Morton and doctor John Collins Warren. Morton administered the ether, and Warren then removed a tumor from the neck of an unconscious patient.

Credit: Another Believer/Wikimedia

News of the successful demonstration spread throughout the world. The event was heralded as the end of “a time when surgery was torture, and a serious operation to be dreaded only less than death itself.”  Johann Friedrich Dieffenbach, a 19th century surgeon, stated, “pain, the highest consciousness of our earthly existence, the most distinct sensation of the imperfection of our body, must bow before the power of the human mind, before the power of ether vapor.”

The Ether Monument was erected amidst much controversary. Morton wanted credit for the discovery of ether, but several doctors opposed to the claim. Morton’s own instructor, chemist Charles T. Jackson, insisted that it was he who mixed the chemicals that Morton used in the surgery. Therefore, the distinction should belong to him. Horace Wells, a dentist from Hartford, Connecticut, also claimed to have produced anesthesia two years earlier with nitrous oxide, but when he was asked to show its effects publicly, he failed. It is now well-known that Crawford Long of Georgia had been using ether in surgery since 1842, long before Morton, but he had been doing it privately and did not publish his findings or make them known to the medical community.

Credit: Daderot/Wikimedia

The ether dispute was handled diplomatically by Oliver Wendell Holmes, a professor at Harvard Medical School, who stated that the monument was to “ether or either,” alluding to the claimants of the discovery. Mark Twain unambiguously opposed Morton. He wrote that “there in Boston is a monument to the man who … stole the discovery from another man … the monument is made of hardy material, but the lie it tells will outlast it a million years.” Twain was not entirely correct, because the Ether Monument makes no mention of any of the claimants, but rather is solely a commemoration of the first effective public demonstration of ether anesthesia.

The monument itself is about 40 feet tall and is made by Boston architect William Robert Ware. It was commissioned twenty years after Morton’s famous surgery by a private citizen named Thomas Lee. The crowning figure of the monument was made by sculptor John Quincy Adams Ward.

Credit: Daderot/Wikimedia

# Written in Granite: A History of the Ether Monument and Its Significance for Anesthesiology, Anesthesiology


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