Who was Horace Wells?

Who was Horace Wells?

Horace Wells (1815-1848) was a dentist who practiced in Hartford, Connecticut, and is credited as the discoverer of anesthesia. In 1844, Wells observed the accidental injury of a man who was under the influence of nitrous oxide gas, inhaled at a sideshow. During the 19th century, the members of the upper class engaged in a peculiar form of entertainment known as laughing gas parties. Such parties involved the inhalation of nitrous oxide, which had been discovered during the 18th century.

On this occasion, Wells noted that the injured person displayed neither pain when he wounded his leg, nor awareness of the injury when questioned afterwards. Wells made the connection between nitrous oxide and its ability to anesthetize and eliminate pain.

The next day, Horace Wells undertook an experiment upon himself. Wells served as the patient while his former dental student John Riggs extracted his wisdom tooth, and Professor Gardner Colton provided the Nitrous oxide. Wells felt no pain and had no recollection of the procedure afterwards.

Horace Wells continued to experiment with the gas, sincerely believing that his discovery would transform the practice of medicine and dentistry, and decided to present his discovery to medical students in Boston. During the dental extraction procedure however, the patient cried out, and the demonstration was considered a failure. Later, the patient stated that he had no recollection of the procedure, but the damage to Wells’ reputation had been done. Branded a fake and a charlatan, Wells became severely depressed; however he continued to teach others his anesthetic technique.  His friends urged him to patent his discovery. Wells, who already held two patents, responded “No. Let it (anesthesia) be as free as the air we breathe”.

Wells experimented with different methods of manufacturing and administering anesthetic gasses using himself as the subject of his tests, with tragic outcome. He died at the age of33 in a New York City prison, destitute and depressed.

The discovery of surgical anesthesia by Horace Wells has been recognized by both the American Medical Association and the American Dental Association. It has transformed the practice of medicine and dental medicine and is considered by many in the healing professions to be, in the words of Sir William Osler, “the greatest single gift ever made to suffering humanity”.

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