Discovery of Modern Anesthesia: A Counterfactual Narrative about Crawford W. Long, Horace Wells, Charles T. Jackson, and William T. G. Morton

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Department of Anesthesiology

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Anesthesia and Analgesia | Anesthesiology | History of Science, Technology, and Medicine


The discovery of anesthesia occurred during a narrow time span in the mid-19th century, but there is no agreement about who deserves credit for this important American contribution to medicine. Based mostly on an examination of primary sources, we explore how formal and informal interactions between the principals affected their careers, lives, and attribution of credit for the discovery of anesthesia. There should be no controversy as to which individual deserves credit for the discovery of anesthesia if credit is ascribed for specific contributions. We suggest that credit for the discovery of anesthesia be divided among 4 individuals who played specific roles. Crawford W. Long first used ether as an anesthetic during surgery, Horace Wells introduced nitrous oxide for pain relief during dental surgery, and William T. G. Morton gave the first public demonstration of ether anesthesia and spread the word about its efficacy. Charles T. Jackson suggested the use of ether as an anesthetic agent to Morton. We also assert that had these individuals not known one another, the discovery of anesthesia would have proceeded in approximately the same timeframe, but Wells, Morton, and Jackson would have enjoyed more productive careers as well as longer, more peaceful lives.


Discovery of anesthesia, Charles T. Jackson, Crawford W. Long, W. T. G. Morton, Horace Wells


AANA J. 2015 Dec;83(6):410-5.

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AANA journal

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