William Thomas Green Morton

The American dentist William Thomas Green Morton (1819-1868) was an early experimenter with anesthesia.

William Morton was born on Aug. 9, 1819, in Charlton, Mass. He went to Boston at the age of 17 to try a career in business, but after several years he took up the study of dentistry at the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery.

In 1842 Morton began his practice in Farmington, Conn., where he met Horace Wells, a dentist who was interested in anesthesia and who was to experiment later with nitrous oxide gas. They set up a practice together in Boston, but it was dissolved after a few months. Morton then entered Harvard in 1844 to study for a medical degree but left because of financial pressures and his marriage that year to Elizabeth Whitman.

Morton resumed his dental practice and began to concentrate on manufacturing and fitting artificial teeth, work which led him to consider using anesthesia. Before a patient could be fitted with artificial teeth, the roots of his old teeth had to be extracted—a tedious and painful operation. Morton had observed experiments with ether in his chemistry classes at Harvard, and his professor Charles T. Jackson encouraged him to try it on his patients. Morton first tested ether on animals and then upon himself to measure the possible aftereffects. When he was convinced of its safety, he decided to put it to use on a patient.

On Sept. 1, 1846, in a demonstration attended by witnesses, he put a patient to sleep by ether inhalation and painlessly extracted an infected tooth. The success of this operation was reported in the newspapers and attracted wide attention, particularly among Boston doctors, who were interested in the use of ether for surgery.

Morton was jealous of his discovery, however, and refused to divulge the formula for his sleep inducer, which he called "letheon." He was issued a patent for letheon in 1846 and insisted on personally issuing licenses for the use of his discovery. When the French Academy of Medicine awarded Jackson and Morton a joint prize of 5,000 francs, Morton turned it down on the grounds that it rightfully belonged to him alone. In 1849 he petitioned Congress for a reward for the discovery of anesthesia, and two bills advocating the payment of $100,000 to Morton were introduced at separate sessions. But the lengthy debates which took place between the warring factions left the issue hopelessly deadlocked.

Morton's legal expenses and the neglect of his practice in the pursuit of financial gain for his discovery reduced him to poverty in his later years. On July 15, 1868, he died in New York City.


Further Reading on William Thomas Green Morton

Two recent accounts of Morton are Grace Steele Woodward, The Man Who Conquered Pain: A Biography of William Thomas Green Morton (1962), and Betty MacQuitty, The Battle for Oblivion: The Discovery of Anaesthesia (1970). There are a number of older works on Morton: P. B. Poore, Historical Materials for the Biography of W. T. G. Morton (1856); Nathan P. Rice, Trials of a Public Benefactor, as Illustrated in the Discovery of Etherization (1859); James M. Sims, History of the Discovery of Anaesthesia (1877); and René Fülöp-Miller, Triumph over Pain (trans. 1938).