Morton, William

Morton, William (Thomas Green)

(1819–68) dentist, anesthetist; born in Charlton, Mass. He studied dentistry in Baltimore and practiced in Connecticut before setting up a dental practice in Boston in 1842, in partnership with Horace Wells. Wells had been experimenting with nitrous oxide ("laughing gas") as an anesthesia while removing teeth. But in 1844, at the suggestion of his landlord, Professor Charles T. Jackson, Morton first used sulfuric ether to anesthetize a patient before drilling a tooth. After experiments on himself, a goldfish, and his dog, he used it during a tooth extraction (September 1846). The subsequent newspaper report caught the attention of a Massachusetts General Hospital surgeon, Dr. John Warren, who sponsored several surgical demonstrations with Morton as anesthetist. At first he tried to keep secret the nature of his anesthesia, calling it "letheon," but to receive a patent he was forced to describe it in a medical journal. Morton soon found himself in conflict with not only Wells and Jackson but also Crawford W. Long of Georgia over the issue of priority, and he would spend the rest of his life trying to establish himself as the discoverer of ether and in trying to profit from its use. He died a poor man but he came to be recognized as the first to introduce ether into general use as an anesthesia.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.
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