Rhodri Marsden's Interesting Objects: Horace Wells' tooth


Rhodri Marsden@rhodri
Saturday 06 December 2014 01:00

* A touring showman by the name of Gardner Colton administered the laughing gas. John Riggs, a Connecticut dentist, wielded the pliers. Horace Wells, another dentist whose wisdom tooth had been causing him distress, braced himself for the extraction. But as Horace Wells's tooth left his body, he felt "not so much as a prick of pain"; 170 years ago this week, anaesthesia met dentistry.

* The previous day, Wells had attended a public demonstration of the "hilarious" effects of nitrous oxide by Colton, who criss-crossed America performing to sell-out crowds. During the show, a drugstore clerk, Sam Cooley, sustained an injury to his leg while "charging around" under the influence of the gas, but noticed no pain. Wells had long been concerned about the suffering of his patients during surgery, and after questioning Cooley he resolved to explore its potential use in dentistry. It took him fewer than 24 hours to discover that it worked.

* Wells performed a number of extractions using the gas, and in January 1845 arranged a demonstration at Massachusetts General Hospital. It didn't go well; the patient appeared to show discomfort, and the audience shouted "Humbug!". Discredited by the American establishment, he took a trip to Paris to spread the word, hoping that cheap, pain-free dentistry would soon be available to everyone.

* On returning to Connecticut, however, he found that a former colleague, William Morton, had patented a similar anaesthetic. Distraught and angry, Wells began to ingest chloroform, his addiction worsening after moving to New York City. In January 1848, under the influence of chloroform, he threw acid over two prostitutes and then committed suicide – under anaesthetic – by slashing his femoral artery. Twenty-two years later, the American Medical Association recognised him as the discoverer of anaesthesia.


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