On December 10, 1844, Hartford residents were treated to a special performance of famous showman and former medical student Gardner Colton’s “Laughing Gas Entertainment.” Colton had first encountered “laughing gas,” or nitrous oxide, while in medical school and soon found he could make quite a bit of money traveling the country demonstrating its hilarity-inducing side effects. On that particular evening, 29-year-old Hartford dentist Horace Wells happened to be in the audience. Wells noticed that during the demonstration, one of Colton’s gassed-up volunteers had stumbled and slammed his leg against a bench and literally “laughed it off,” noting that he felt no pain from the incident even after the effects of the gas wore off.
Wells immediately thought of the incredible benefit that such a phenomenon could provide to the practice of dentistry, where painful tooth extractions and oral surgeries were the norm. The very next day, Wells summoned Colton to his Hartford office to have him administer nitrous oxide while a dental assistant extracted one of Wells’ own wisdom teeth. After the gas wore off, Wells declared he felt no more pain than “the prick of a pin” during the procedure — making his experiment the first successful application of medical anesthesia.
Wells began incorporating the use of nitrous oxide in his dental practice with great success, but though he proudly claimed to be the inventor of “pain-free dentistry,” he refused to seek a patent on any of his methods, believing that freedom from pain should be a universal right that was “as free as the air.” Wells’ incredibly important discovery, however, was soon followed by a series of crushing professional setbacks. During the most important demonstration of his career, in front of a huge audience at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital, Wells administered nitrous oxide to a patient and proceeded to extract a tooth — only to abort the procedure after the patient cried out, seemingly in pain. While the patient later admitted he actually felt no pain in spite of his cries, at the time, Wells was booed and jeered by the audience, who accused him of being a fraud.
The Boston incident began a tragic downward spiral for Wells, who fell into a deep depression that ultimately forced him to close his dental practice. Within the span of only a few years, he found himself living in New York City, estranged from his wife and only son, and experimenting on himself with combinations of ether and chloroform. Wells unwittingly became addicted to the latter, which only increased his already erratic behavior. On his 33rd birthday, he was arrested for throwing sulfuric acid on two women in New York City and thrown into prison, where the medical pioneer’s life came to an end by his own hand.
While he struggled to find recognition for his discoveries during his lifetime, Horace Wells has since been widely honored and credited with the discovery and first successful application of medical anesthesia. Unbeknownst to Wells, the Parisian Medical Society had officially recognized him as the first man to discover and perform surgical operations without pain and awarded an honorary M.D. only twelve days before he took his own life. Wells was recognized as the discoverer of modern anesthesia by both the American Dental Association and American Medical Association later in the 19th century. There are several tributes to Horace Wells which can be found in Hartford, including a statue in Bushnell Park and a striking memorial in Cedar Hill Cemetery commissioned by his son Charles Wells, which is inscribed with the words “There Shall Be No Pain” and “I Awaken To Glory.” Thanks to the idea that occurred to Horace Wells on this day in 1844, those words have rung true for millions of people all over the world.
Emily E. Gifford, “Horace Wells Discovers Pain-Free Dentistry,” connecticuthistory.org
Andrew Brodsky, “Relax, Inhale, and Think of Horace Wells,” Oxford University Press blog
“Dr. Horace Wells, 1818 – 1845,” Cedar Hill Cemetery Foundation