An analgesic broadside for Horace Wells

An analgesic broadside for Horace Wells

Stearns, Henry Putnam (1828 – 1905) and James McManus (1836 – 1920). The discovery of anæsthesia. [s.l. : s.n., c. 1870]. Broadside, 28 cm by 19 cm.

     A printed petition to the Connecticut General Assembly to request a grant of "a few thousand dollars" for the construction of a monument commemorating the discovery of anesthesia by Horace Wells (1815 – 1848). The petition chronicles Wells’ experiments with nitrous oxide in December 1844, and credits him with the discovery of modern anaesthesia. The signatories are H. P. Stearns of the Connecticut Medical Society and James McManus, the founder (in 1864) of the Connecticut State Dental Society.

     As Charles R. E. Koch and Burton Lee Thorpe note in their history of dental surgery, the petitioners were successful:

In 1870 Drs. J. M. Riggs, James McManus, E. E. Crofoot, and William Blatchley were appointed a committee to present to the General Assembly of Connecticut and the city council of Hartford a proposition to erect a statue in bronze to the memory of Dr. Horace Wells, the discoverer of anaesthesia. The Assembly and the council each gave five thousand dollars, to which were added individual contributions from the other States and cities, that enabled the committee to secure the services of Mr. Truman H. Bartlett, sculptor, of Boston. The statue was placed in Bushnell Park, Hartford, July 22, 1874. (Koch & Thorpe, I:349-50)


Horace Wells Memorial, Bushnell Park, Hartford

     Trained in Boston, Horace Wells opened his dental practice in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1836. He attended a demonstration of the effects of nitrous oxide by Gardner Quincy Colton, who administered the drug to an apothecary store clerk and proceeded to physically abuse him for the benefit of the audience. Wells quickly apprehended both the clinical and recreational use of the drug. After further experiments, he introduced nitrous oxide as an anaesthetic in a January, 1845 presentation to medical students at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. The presentation did not go well, and Wells closed his practice soon afterwards. His later years were brief and sad: leaving his wife and child he moved to Manhattan to further "experiments" on himself with chloroform and ether, becoming an addict. In 1848 in a drug-addled phrenzy, he threw sulfuric acid at two prostitutes. Sobering up in the Tombs prison, he committed suicide in his cell.

     Wells was recognized as the discoverer of modern anaesthesia by the Parisian Medical Society in 1848, the American Dental Association in 1864, and the American Medical Association in 1870. The present broadside, produced by two of Connecticut's most prominent figures (the Hartford Dental Society still administers James McManus Fund) is a product of that posthumous process of recognition. 

     The broadside is very rare. There are only three other recorded copies, at Harvard's Countway Library, the Connecticut Historical Society, and the Wood Library of the Museum of Anesthesiology.

Selected References

  • Fenster, Julie M. (2001). Ether day: the strange tale of America's greatest medical discovery and the haunted men who made it. New York, 2001
  • Koch, Charles R. E. and Burton Lee Thorpe. History of dental surgery. Chicago, 1909.
  • Wells, Horace (1847). A History of the discovery of the application of nitrous oxide gas, ether, and other vapors to surgical operations. Hartford, 1847

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    An analgesic broadside for Horace Wells