A dentist’s discovery of anesthesia shaped the future of medicine

Jul 24th, 2013
Trouble July 3

By John Holtzen, DMD
July 24, 2013

“On Sept. 30, 1846, a man named Eben Frost came to Dr. Morton’s office complaining of a severe toothache, complicated by a healthy fear of its pending removal. Mr. Frost agreed to undergo the first experimental use of ether on a patient for a surgical procedure and became the first person in history to experience a painless surgery with the benefit of anesthesia. Dr. Morton then proceeded to perform an academic demonstration of general anesthesia during a surgery, and the rest is history.”

Every living individual has experienced fear. Of course, this most basic of human emotions comes in varying degrees. The fear one feels at the risk of failing a test in school, the fear of asking for a first date, and the fear one feels from a cancer diagnosisall vary greatly in both the nature and the degree of physical and emotional response.

The underlying mental condition of each individual also affects the emotional response to any given circumstance. One might assume that the mental health component of fear response is only relevant to the rare individual struggling with more severe mental illness. The truth however is that underlying mental conditions alter the responses to fearful conditions for a huge number of people. According to the National Institute of Mental Health almost 1/5 of all adult Americans suffer with one of the spectrum of illnesses known as anxiety disorders. This statistic means that in a given day a physician will likely encounter several individuals who experience not just rational fear, but are clouded by less than rational emotions.

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In this regard, the world owes a debt of gratitude to a man who serendipitously became one of the most influential doctors in history. In the 1840s the Massachusetts dentist, Dr. William Morton, began experimenting in the search for a method that might allow painless tooth removal. He began working with ether, and initially experimented on both his dog and himself.

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