Tales from the Operatory Part III: Dental Anesthesia

What would we do without dental anesthesia?  We have Horace Wells to thank for the use of nitrous oxide (laughing gas) in dentistry as an anesthetic.  Dr. Wells set up practice in Hartford, CT after training in Boston, MA as an apprentice in 1834 as there were no dental schools until 1840 when the first dental school began in Baltimore, MD.

Dr. Wells first witnessed the effects of nitrous oxide in 1844 at a demonstration by Gardner Quincy Colton billed in the Hartford Courant as “A Grand Exhibition of the Effects Produced by Inhaling Nitrous Oxide, Exhilarating, or Laughing Gas.”  He witnessed a man inhale the gas whereby this man became intoxicated.  While under the influence, the intoxicated man did not react when he struck his legs against a wooden bench while jumping around.  After the demonstration, this man was unable to recall his actions while under the influence, but found abrasions and bruises on his knees. From this demonstration, Dr. Wells realized the potential for the analgesic properties of nitrous oxide. Dr. Wells then met with Colton about conducting trials for its dental use as an anesthetic.

The next day he conducted a trial on himself, inhaling the nitrous oxide, and then had one of his apprentices extract a tooth.  Dr. Wells deemed the experiment a success as he felt no pain with the extraction. He went on to test at least 12 other patients in his office successfully.

He went up to Boston to give a demonstration to medical students there where his former student and associate William Morton was located.    William Morton went to Boston to return to medical school and began to investigate ether as an alternative anesthetic.  Enough gas was not administrated and the patient cried out in pain.  The audience jeered him.  Two very important points come out of this.  First, although the patient cried out in pain, he actually had no memory of the pain and did not know when the tooth was extracted.  Second, it was later found that the gas was not as effective on obese people and alcoholics, the patient was both.  This reaction of the audience greatly disheartened Dr. Wells and the experiment was deemed a failure and Dr. Wells returned to Hartford the next day.

Within the next year, Dr. Wells closed his Hartford dental practice.  Morton demonstrated ether successfully in Boston as an anesthetic.  Wells attempted to gain credit for the discovery of dental anesthesia, but his attempts at doing so were unsuccessful.

Dr. Wells sporadically practiced dentistry until finally closing his practice and moving to New York City.  Dr. Wells began experimenting with ether and chloroform where he then became addicted to chloroform and ended up in Tombs prison where he committed suicide in his cell.

Twelve days before his death the Parisian Medical Society voted and honored him as the first to perform surgeries without pain.   Both the American Dental Association and the American Medical Association recognized him posthumously as the discoverer of modern anesthesia.

Horace Wells is buried in Cedar Hill Cemetery in Hartford.  He never received the credit for his discovery while alive, but we definitely thank him daily for painless surgery.

Columbia Dental does offer anesthesia as well, be it nitrous oxide or conscious sedation to provide you with painless surgery.  Call 860-645-0111 to make your appointment with us.

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