Monadnock Moments No. 21: Horace Wells and the Discovery of Anesthesia
Horace Wells was born in Hartford, Vermont in January of 1815. He spent a good portion of his youth in Cheshire County as a resident of Westmoreland. Wells attended the prestigious Chesterfield Academy and thereafter taught school in Westmoreland. During 1833 he studied dentistry under Dr. Stratton of Keene. Wells opened his own office in Hartford, Connecticut in 1836.
From the beginning of his career Wells was concerned with the pain caused during the extraction of teeth. He experimented with various narcotics and by 1840 he felt that nitrous oxide might be an answer to the problem. It was not until 1844, however, that he experimented on himself with the gas. While under its influence he had a tooth extracted from his own mouth without experiencing pain. Wells immediately began to use the gas on his patients. Other Hartford dentists soon followed suit. It was three years before anesthesia was attempted in Keene, and first used by Wells’ former teacher Dr. Stratton.
Wells traveled to Boston to share his discovery with others in his field, including Doctors T. G. Morton and Charles Jackson. In 1846 Doctors Morton and Jackson, who had been working on similar experiments, laid claim to the discovery of anesthesia and applied for a patent. Wells disputed their claim, but to no avail. Morton and Jackson later submitted their claims to the Institute of France. Once again Wells disputed their claim, and once again he had no success. In 1847 Wells moved to New York and tried once again to further his own claim to the discovery. One year later he was arrested on the charge that he had thrown sulfuric acid on a lady in the street. The arrest so aggravated his mental state that he committed suicide.
Wells was not forgotten, however, and was subsequently recognized as a pioneer in the field of anesthesia. The residents of Hartford erected a bronze statue in his memory. The statue of him still stands in Bushnell Park in Hartford, with an inscription that reads: “Horace Wells, the discoverer of anesthesia.”