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It’s almost that day of the year again when I kindly wish people a happy Ether Day, and all I get is dumbfounded squawks of “What’s THAT?!” in response. Tomorrow is October 16, also known as Ether Day (and don’t forget Dictionary Day — Noah Webster’s birthday).

If you don’t know about it, you ought to. So I shall embark on the most watered-down, in-a-nutshell history of ether — it was actually a very complex affair, but one has to start with at least the basics.

On October 16, 1846, the first surgery under ether was performed in Massachusetts General Hospital. If you fail to find the significance of this, it meant saying fare-well to enduring painful surgical procedures, like having tumors removed or limbs sawed off, while being wide awake. Translation: it was a true blessing.

Contemporary re-enactment of Morton's October ...

Contemporary re-enactment of Morton’s October 16, 1846, ether operation; daguerrotype by Southworth & Hawes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There really isn’t one person to attribute to the discovery of anesthesia. The spark started with a dentist, Horace Wells, although he experimented with nitrous oxide (laughing gas), which was proved a “humbug” in a surgical demonstration. Bear in mind that ideas for reducing or eliminating pain in surgery popped up earlier in history, such as with Humphry Davy, but once Wells got it into his head, everything accelerated. William Thomas Green Morton, another dentist and Wells’s ex-partner, caught the contagious desire for the discovery (and for money) and tried sulfuric ether, as suggested by Charles T. Jackson. Jackson, however, fought obsessively for recognition once he saw its success.

The first lucky patient was Gilbert Abbot, who was to have a tumor removed from his neck. John Collins Warren did the operating, and Morton was almost late for the appointed surgery, having commissioned a new inhalation device last minute. But he arrived with his ether and his device, and Abbot was unaware of the procedure. The classic response of Dr. Warren: “Gentlemen, this is no humbug.”

English: Replica of the inhaler used by Willia...

English: Replica of the inhaler used by William T. G. Morton in 1846 in the first public demonstration of surgery using ether. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And my personal dilemma is, aside from simply wishing flummoxed souls a happy Ether Day, how on earth would one celebrate it? You could hug an anesthesiologist, but unless you are related to or are very close to one, that behavior would be simply bizarre. You could schedule a procedure for that day… or not. You could simply sleep and be unaware of everything, pain or no pain. And I don’t advise having ether frolics at all, even though they were popular enough long before ether was put to practical use (again, I say DON’T DO IT).

I think I’ll just stick with the verbal greetings. And if you like, read more about it — it’s an interesting topic, not to mention one of the most fascinating (and dramatic) medical events of the 19th century.

In conclusion, I wish you… Happy Ether Day.

Illustrates the first use of ether as an anaes...

Illustrates the first use of ether as an anaesthetic in 1846 by the dental surgeon W.T.G. Morton (Photo credit: Wikipedia)