Revisiting a Boston Monument to Ether Boston recently rededicated a 138-year-old monument to the drug ether. Objections about the use of the drug as an anesthetic were symbolic of the centuries-old tug-of-war between science and religion -- some devout Christians considered ether to be a tool of the devil.
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Revisiting a Boston Monument to Ether

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Revisiting a Boston Monument to Ether

Revisiting a Boston Monument to Ether

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Amsterdam. That's the kind of city that would build a monument to drugs. But Boston? Well, Boston has just rededicated a 138 year old statue erected to honor he drug ether. Here's reporter Alan Coukell.

ALAN COUKELL: The monument to ether is a 40-foot tower of granite and marble. It's adorned with scenes of amputations and topped with a giant carving of the Good Samaritan. In some ways, the monument is a symbol of the clash between science and religion.

Dr. RAFAEL ORTEGA (Anesthesiologist): The whole theme of the monument deals with the very impact that ether anesthesia had on society.

COUKELL: Dr. Rafael Ortega is a Boston anesthesiologist who helped raise money to restore the monument. He points to one of its biblical inscriptions: Neither shall there be any more pain.

Dr. ORTEGA: That quotation is used to support the fact that ether was a divine gift rather than the manifestation of Satan, as some called it.

COUKELL: Ether was regarded with great suspicion 159 years ago. It was first used is an operating room at the Massachusetts General Hospital, a room now known as the Etherdome. Before ether, surgery was a grizzly undertaking.

Mr. WARREN ZAPOL (Chief of Anesthesia, Massachusetts General Hospital): About once a month, somebody was taken out of the wards on the floor below us for an operation.

COUKELL: Warren Zapol, the hospital's chief of anesthesia, leads a tour of the 1846 room. At the center of a bare wood floor sat a red velvet chair with leather straps. Above it, visitors benches climb towards the pale-blue dome.

Mr. ZAPOL: The doors are very thick so the people downstairs wouldn't hear the screaming. A couple of big bruisers would tie you down with belts. They'd give you a little more brandy, and then maybe your leg would be taken off.

COUKELL: Zapol says the record-fast amputation was 92 seconds, although in that case the surgeon also took his assistant's index finger and the patient's right testicle.

Mr. ZAPOL: That's what surgery was like.

COUKELL: Then came Boston dentist and sometime riverboat gambler William Morton. He knew about ether frolics, the recreation use of the drug, but Morton saw its medical potential. He experimented first on his goldfish and then on his dog, and it worked. He tried to get human volunteers, and failed.

Mr. ZAPOL: So he didn't get any takers. Went back a bit despondent to his office and he anesthetized himself, a very dangerous business. He survived, woke up. The rag, the ether rag, had fallen off his face. He looked at his watch and an hour had disappeared from his life.

COUKELL: Morton began to advertise an entirely new service: painless dentistry. Word soon got around, and the famous surgeon, John Collins Warren, invited the dentist to try his drug in the Boston operating room. On the appointed day, a young man, a printer by trade with a large tumor under his jaw, was strapped to the chair. Morton entered, carrying his glass vial.

Mr. ZAPOL: The flinty surgeon kind of clears his voice and says (clears throat), Your patient, Dr. Morton. And Dr. Morton comes in, pours a little bit of the ether into the glass. Everybody watched. A few breaths, a few more breaths, inhaling, exhaling, and the patient nodded off. Warren picked up the knife, made the incision. The patient didn't cry out, no screaming, no moaning. Surgery changed at that instant.

COUKELL: Dr. Rafael Ortega.

Dr. ORTEGA: There was initial religious opposition to the introduction of anesthesia. The curse of Eve in Genesis, as you might remember, states that women will have children in pain and so forth.

COUKELL: For his part, William Morton spent the war years locked in a public feud over who should profit from his discovery. His name is conspicuously absent from ether monument. William Morton died, broke, a month after it was unveiled. For NPR News, I'm Alan Coukell in Boston.

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