Wellesley memorializes dentist William T.G. Morton with a marker in front of town hall, celebrating the world’s first public demonstration of ether as an anesthetic in surgery in 1864.
But if you really want to get a feel for the former Wellesley resident’s achievement, you’ve got to visit Mass General Hospital’s Ether Dome, which is free and open to the public at the Bulfinch Building at 55 Fruit St. in downtown Boston. While I wouldn’t advise making this National Historical Landmark your sole reason for a Boston visit, it’s a great add-on excursion if you’re already in town (for those of you with kids who play soccer every so often on the esplanade fields, it’s just a short walk across the bridge).
The Ether Dome, where Morton historically administered ether to a patient having a tumor removed by another surgeon, is an architectural marvel with its high dome and tiered seating. Plus it features a slew of educational information and artifacts, including scary old surgical tools, a colorful painting of the first successful surgery using ether (seen above) and even a real Egyptian mummy called Padihershef that was donated by a patron years ago and that “witnessed” the historic Morton surgery. Supposedly, Dr. Morton performed some surgery/research on the mummy.
The amphitheater, used for some 8,000 surgeries in the mid-1800s, is still booked for teaching and events.
Not all accounts of Morton’s achievements are favorable, as the doctor is the subject of books such as “Tarnished Idol” about controversy over claims of who really came up with the idea of using ether for surgery. Morton initially called the substance he used “Letheon” and filed a patent for it, though it was quickly discovered that it was in fact ether, which others had claimed they had discovered for surgical use first. Whoever came up with the idea for ether as an anesthestic, it proved to be surgery’s first major milestone and ether wound up being used worldwide for surgery within a year of Morton’s first public demo, according to MGH.