Wells, Horace

Wells, Horace

(1815–48) dentist, anesthetist; born in Hartford, Vt. He was a dentist in Hartford, Conn., when about 1840 he became interested in the possibility of using nitrous oxide—"laughing gas"—as a painkiller while extracting teeth. In 1841 he formed a partnerhip with a Boston dentist, William T. G. Morton, a dentist who was looking into ether as an anesthetic. In December 1844, Wells had one of his own teeth extracted while under nitrous oxide and he extracted several more from patients without pain. However, when he attempted to demonstrate the gas's efficacy for surgery at the Harvard Medical School in 1845, it failed. In 1846 Morton successfully demonstrated the use of ether, first (September) for teeth extraction and then (October) for surgical operations at Massachusetts General Hospital. In December 1846, Wells published a claim in the Hartford Courant that he had discovered the anesthetic effect of both nitrous oxide and ether; in 1847 he elaborated his claims in a pamphlet. Morton, meanwhile, had filed patent claims for ether, which was at once regarded as superior for protracted operations. Wells moved to New York City, and continuing his investigations into anesthetics, had taken chloroform; in jail for creating a disturbance while under its influence, he committed suicide.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.