“Surgery is pain. Torturous, gut-wrenching, terrifying pain.” Pain that was only partially soothed by opium, whiskey, or a powerful punch into unconsciousness – until the first publicly demonstrated use of ether as an anesthetic on October 16, 1846. William T.G. Morton, a dentist from Hartford, Connecticut, became the first anesthesiologist when he used ether to anesthetize Edward Gilbert Abbott in the surgical theater atop the iconic Bulfinch Building at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital, since known by the name “The Ether Dome.” The two gentlemen took Diethyl ether, what had been a recreational narcotic, and used its pain-erasing properties to make a monumental contribution to modern medical science. While under the effects of the anesthetic, Mr. Abbott had a tumor removed from his neck by John Collins Warren, the first Dean of Harvard Medical School. Once the patient had awakened, he is reported to have said, “Feels like my neck’s been scratched.” Warren then turned to his audience and announced, “Gentlemen, this is no humbug.”
A large painting of the scene by Warren and Lucia Prosperi hangs in the surgical amphitheater, whose most recent renovation has just been completed in time for the 150th anniversary of the historic medical event. From its opening in 1821 until 1868, more than 8,000 surgeries were performed under the glass dome, which has since been used as a storage area, a dormitory, a dining room for nurses, and most recently a teaching amphitheater. In 1965, the room was designated a National Historic Site. The entire bullfinch Building was added to the list of National Historic Landmarks in 1971.
The Ether Dome is open to the public when it is not in use for medical conferences and presentations. Once inside, visitors will see the quintessential Hollywood medical lecture hall, though it also contains a human skeleton, a display of early surgical tools, a large marble statue of Apollo, and an Egyptian mummy.
After visiting modern anesthesia’s birthplace, you may want to experience The Ether Dome, a play by Elizabeth Egloff. This psychological thriller based on the story of Dr. Horace Wells, another Hartford dentist and reputedly the inspiration for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The show is a co-production of The Hartford Stage, Alley Theater, La Jolla Playhouse, and Huntington Theater Company of Boston, and can be seen beginning in September. The Hartford production coincides with the city’s Envisionfest, celebrating local cultural and scientific innovations that continue to influence our lives to this day.