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date: 15 October 2019

Morton, William Thomas Greenfree

(09 August 1819–15 July 1868)
  • Christopher Lawrence

Morton, William Thomas Green (09 August 1819–15 July 1868), dentist and introducer of ether anesthesia, was born at Charlton, Massachusetts, the son of James Morton and Rebecca Needham, farmers. In 1840, after early experiences as a clerk and salesman in Boston, Morton studied dentistry at the College of Dental Surgery in Baltimore. In 1842 he set up in practice in Farmington, Connecticut. In the winter of 1842–1843 he practiced jointly with Horace Wells in Boston. In March 1844 Morton matriculated at Harvard Medical School and attended two courses of lectures but never graduated, and he continued to practice as a dentist. In 1844 Morton married Elizabeth Whitman; they had one child, a son.

Morton is best remembered for administering ether to a patient undergoing successful surgery at the Massachusetts General Hospital on 16 October 1846, an event that is clouded in controversy. His attempts to secure for himself all the glory and any profits accruing from the technique resulted in a dispute so virulent that it obscures even some of the basic chronology of the events in the summer and fall of 1846. Morton was by no means the first to administer a general anesthetic agent or to conceive of its surgical uses. By the nineteenth century, surgery, which had long been held to be one of the lesser healing arts, had become a technically complex and, for the most successful practitioners, a socially prestigious occupation. To facilitate their increasingly protracted operations, mainly on bones and joints and on the teeth and jaws, a small number of surgeons and dentists had experimented with anesthetic techniques. Gas chemistry had been created in the late eighteenth century and in 1800 the English chemist Humphry Davy had suggested that the recently discovered gas nitrous oxide might be used with advantage during surgical operations. In the 1820s, in England, Henry Hill Hickman had experimented with gases on animals with the explicit intention of developing surgical anesthesia. In the 1840s mesmeric techniques had successfully been used by a number of surgeons to perform pain-free operations. In 1842 Crawford W. Long, practicing in Jefferson, Georgia, had performed several operations on patients under ether. By the time Morton had come to experiment with anesthesia, the possibility of making surgery pain-free was by no means unrealized.

In December 1844 Horace Wells, Morton’s erstwhile partner, had a tooth extracted successfully under nitrous oxide, and thereafter he used the gas on a number of patients. In 1845 he approached Morton, who introduced him to two of the surgeons at Massachusetts General. Wells’s demonstration of nitrous oxide anesthesia at the hospital was a failure, possibly because the patient inhaled an insufficient quantity of the gas, and the surgeons were unimpressed. By now Morton also was thinking about the possibility of anesthesia, especially for his own dental work, a great deal of which involved extensive reconstruction. Thus, as his legal adviser Richard H. Dana was later to write, Morton had a “direct pecuniary motive” (Duncum, p. 99) to alleviate pain. Any number of sources could have suggested to Morton that ether was a potentially useful anesthetic. In 1844, before Wells’s demonstration, Morton was a student and boarder of Charles T. Jackson, a professor of chemistry at Harvard, and at his suggestion Morton had used ether drops as a local dental anesthetic. Jackson also demonstrated the narcotic power of ether in his chemistry classes, although Morton later claimed to have learned of this power from a standard text on materia medica. Knowledge of ether’s properties was widespread, for it was also inhaled for fun at “ether frolics.” According to his own account and those of his later supporters, Morton was experimenting secretly with ether vapor through the summer and fall of 1846, first on animals and himself and then on his assistants. By the end of June he was so preoccupied with his ether experiments that he engaged a partner, Grenville G. Hayden, to supervise his dental business. In 1848 Hayden recounted that when the partnership was formed Morton confided that he had an idea of something that “would be one of the greatest things ever known.” He further disclosed that this “thing” was a way to extract teeth without pain (Duncum, p. 100). Hayden reported that it was clear to him that Morton thought that the agent that would effect this possibility was ether. In March 1847 two of Morton’s student apprentices recounted the events of the previous summer. One of them, William P. Leavitt, recalled being sent to buy ether in July 1846 and also being instructed to ask the chemist whether ether would affect india-rubber (Wells had used a rubber bag to administer nitrous oxide). The other apprentice, Thomas R. Spear, recalled that in August 1846 he had inhaled ether at Morton’s request. It seems clear that at this point Morton was convinced about the value of ether but unhappy with the technical details of its administration. At the end of September a critical episode in the history of etherization occurred; Morton consulted with Jackson about gaseous anesthesia. By his own account, Morton withheld from Jackson at this interview the fact that he, Morton, was experimenting with ether. At the end of October 1846, however, Jackson was claiming that it was at this meeting that he had informed Morton about the anesthetic power of ether. All the evidence, except for Jackson’s own, points against this being the case, but it does seem clear that Morton had gleaned some valuable information from Jackson, either about anesthetic administration or about ether preparations.

On 30 September a willing patient, Eben H. Frost, was anesthetized with ether by Morton and had a tooth extracted. Morton immediately tried to patent etherization. Frost had been anesthetized by ether dropped on a handkerchief. Subsequent attempts to anesthetize patients in this way were failures, and Morton constructed an inhaler. Morton now sought to bring his technique to public notice and he contacted the senior surgeon at Massachusetts General, John Collins Warren. Warren expressed interest in Morton’s work, even though Morton kept his agent a secret. Morton was promised an opportunity to demonstrate. On 15 October Morton worked frenetically on his inhaler. The next day Warren removed a tumor from the neck of a young man anesthetized by Morton using an ether-soaked sponge contained in a glass vessel. Afterward Warren is said to have made the famous remark, “Gentlemen this is no humbug.” A second operation, to remove a tumor from a woman’s arm, was completed successfully the following day. The surgeons at the hospital endorsed the value of the technique, and Morton frantically attempted to exploit his success. On 19 October he wrote to Wells that he had successfully carried out more than 160 dental extractions under his “preparation” (Duncum, p. 111).

Rumors of the Boston experiment abounded, and Morton received so many letters inquiring about his technique that he was obliged to employ a secretary. He published pamphlets recording successful cases and had a great number of inhalers made. His agent, sulfuric ether, was still his secret, and he was still without a patent. Jackson now claimed joint priority for the discovery of the technique. Jackson, a Harvard professor, was a man of influence in Boston with friends at the patent office. Morton was persuaded that with Jackson’s name on the patent greater personal benefit might accrue, and with some reluctance he applied for a joint patent on 27 October. The patentees claimed they had “invented or discovered” that sulfuric ether could abolish the pain of surgical operations (Duncum, Appendix A). The inhaler also was patented. Jackson immediately agreed to assign all his rights in the patent to Morton, for which concession Jackson was to receive 10 percent of the profits from American sales of the patent. A second joint patent to cover sales abroad was also issued. The surgeons of Massachusetts General Hospital, meanwhile, denounced Morton’s secrecy and marketing strategy and banned the use of Morton’s agent in the hospital. He, in need of their support, agreed that they were not to be bound by the patent. On 7 November an amputation was performed under ether at the hospital. On 15 November Jackson began to claim that Morton had merely acted on Jackson’s instructions from the beginning. On 18 November the surgeon Henry Jacob Bigelow announced the success of the technique in the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal. At a meeting at the hospital between Morton and Bigelow and Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes on 21 November, Morton’s secret agent was designated Letheon.

By now Jackson was attempting to ensure for himself the profits from any European sales. Wells also entered the fray, claiming in print that he was the originator of the principle of gaseous inhalation for pain-free surgery. The next twenty years of Morton’s life were spent in bitter litigious controversy. Instead of making a fortune he soon fell into debt, having neglected his dental business. Around 1850 he took up farming but continued his as yet unsuccessful attempt to enforce his patent, the government itself having infringed it; both the army and the navy had used etherization without permission or payment. Applications by Morton to Congress for financial reward failed to produce a result. In 1852 Crawford Long’s supporters persuaded him to claim priority for the use of ether. On 19 April 1854, a bill passed the Senate “to recompense the discoverer of practical anaesthesia.” But on the grounds of “multiplicity of claimants”—Morton, Jackson, Long, Wells—it was rejected by the House of Representatives (Duncum, p. 128). Shortly after this, Morton received personal assurances from President Franklin Pierce that the patent would be protected. In 1858, on the basis of this assurance, Morton, heavily in debt, initiated a test case against the government, specifically against the superintendent of the United States Marine Hospital at Chelsea, near Boston. The government, however, failed to come to his aid, and in 1862 the case was dismissed on the grounds that the patent was not valid. Morton lived in poverty on his farm from 1862 until 1868, when a pamphlet from Jackson prompted him to file a suit in New York. His death, brought on by a stroke in New York City, relieved him of further litigation.

Morton lived in a world in which the paying patient was the key to medical and dental success. Competition was fierce, and the most successful practitioner was the one who could offer some unique service to his clientele. Morton also lived in a world that regarded and rewarded discovery as the fruit of individual dedication and genius. In spite of his knowledge of the endeavors of others, Morton saw himself as the sole discoverer of inhalational anesthesia. It was acting on this perception that destroyed Morton. Discovery is not a momentary intervention by a unique individual, however, but a process. It is clear that Morton had an important place as midwife to anesthesia. It was not a role that no one else could have played. Much wider determinants were at work. Morton’s work was spawned by very general changes in the practice of surgery, and by very local influences on the practice of dentistry. He doggedly dedicated himself to realizing a principle that was not enunciated solely by him or anyone else, and he promoted an agent that had not been discovered by him or whose actions were known only to him. No one person “discovered” anesthesia. Morton did, however, make an early persuasive public demonstration of the power of ether to restrict pain during surgical operations.


A volume of Morton’s letters and papers relating to ether is in the Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston. Morton’s published works, and early works about him, are nearly all polemical interventions into the priority dispute. From 26 Nov. 1846 he published, usually weekly, Circular: Morton’s Letheon, containing the results of his researches (see the back page of the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, 9 Dec. 1846). Morton began to include in these sheets correspondence and news clippings, and they were then reissued in pamphlet form (first ed., 1846) with the same title and the significant subtitle Cautioning Those Who Attempt to Infringe upon His Legal Rights. In 1847 he published Remarks on the Proper Mode of Administering Sulphuric Ether by Inhalation. In the same year from Paris a pamphlet appeared documenting Morton’s claims, Mémoire sur la Découverte du Nouvel Emploi de l’Éther Sulfurique Suivi des Pièces Justificatives. In 1850 he issued a brochure in response to James Young Simpson’s claims for chloroform, On the Physiological Effects of Sulphuric Ether and Its Superiority to Chloroform. In the same year also appeared Remarks on the Comparative Value of Ether and Chloroform, with Hints upon Natural and Artificial Teeth. The Index-Catalogue of the Library of the Surgeon General’s Office also lists a dental publication from 1848, the second edition of On the Loss of the Teeth and the Modern Way of Restoring Them. Early accounts of Morton’s career are all polemical, including B. P. Poore, Historical Materials for the Biography of W. T. G. Morton (1856); N. P. Rice, Trials of a Public Benefactor, as Illustrated by the Discovery of Etherization (1859); and H. J. Bigelow, “A History of the Discovery of Modern Anaesthesia,” in A Century of American Medicine (1876). Pamphlets relating to the priority dispute can be found in the annotated catalog by John F. Fulton and Madeline E. Stanton, The Centennial of Surgical Anesthesia (1946). The best modern secondary source dealing with the early history of anesthesia is, without question, Barbara M. Duncum, The Development of Inhalation Anaesthesia (1994).