In the winter of 1868, Eben Frost goes to a Boston pawnshop and redeems a silver medal, inscribed to "Dr. W.T.G. Morton, the Benefactor of Mankind, with the Gratitude of Humanity." Frost drives to a country farmhouse and gives the medal to Morton's widow, Elizabeth Morton who explains to her daughter, Betty, that Frost was the first person given anesthesia by her father, Boston dentist Dr. W.T.G. Morton. The story flashes back 20 years to find Morton being wildly acclaimed by medical students as the man whose discovery of "letheon" had forever ended pain as, before that day, even amputations were performed with the patient fully conscious. "Letheron", unknown to everybody but Morton and Elizabeth, is simply highly rectified sulfuric ether - cleaning fluid - easily obtainable at a pharmacy. By keeping the secret, Dr. Morton could be rich, but he had rather be poor than see a girl strapped to an operating table under the knife of Dr. Warren, and he reveals his secret to a group of ... Written by
Les Adams <firstname.lastname@example.org>
A Sturgis Curiosity - and a One Sided View of a Discovery
Every book or play or movie based on history is bound to give only part of the story, and THE GREAT MOMENT is no exception. Preston Sturgis was one of the masters of sound film comedy in the 1940s, which sharp satires like THE GREAT McGINTY, SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS, and THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN'S CREEK. But he wanted to try something more serious - a biography of Dr. William Morton, the dentist who popularized the use of anesthesia (nitrous oxide) in operations. The film was shot in 1942, when Sturgis was reaching the height of his rocket-like career. But the management of Paramount was not satisfied with the film as Sturgis cut it, for he ended the story on a tragic note (that Morton never did benefit by his great discovery, and died impoverished and in disgrace). It was not an up-beat ending, and as Sturgis was known for comedies his film had to be up-beat. They re-cut the film as it remains today, and it ends (illogically) in the middle, with Morton's first triumphant use of nitrous oxide in an operation in 1846. To add to the film's tribulations there was a two year backlog of Hollywood films in 1942, so it was not released until 1944. It did moderate business, and did not aid Sturgis's faltering career at that point.
As it is, the film is not uninteresting, and shows that Sturgis would have had funny sections in the film (William Demerest's reaction to ether, for example). But it is based on a book that paints Morton as the hero of the "Conquest of Pain", relegating Drs. Horace Wells and Charles Jackson to background/villain roles. It's more complex than the surviving film suggests. Nitrous oxide had been known as a gas with odd properties for some time. In 1800 Sir Humphrey Davy, the famous British Chemist, suggested (somewhat inadvertently) it might be used by surgeons. But it was the drug of choice for decades in Europe and American, for a quick, pleasant (but dangerous) high. In THE CIDER HOUSE RULES, Michael Caine's character uses ether to get high when depressed, and it eventually kills him.
Dr. Horace Wells, a dentist from Connecticut, first got the idea of using ether for surgery in the U.S. However, he was not an effective demonstrator, and his attempt to show it before doctors only ended in dismissal and ridicule because the subject (although totally oblivious to pain) moaned while asleep. The audience thought he was hurting. Morton had worked as a dentist with Wells. He continued studying ether, and finally perfected a method of demonstrating it. He was better at demonstrations. But he had to share the secret with Dr. Charles Jackson, who helped him get the supplies of nitrous oxide. An agreement with Jackson was to allow them to share the credit. But Morton (who had an unscrupulous side, not shown in the movie) tried to patent nitrous oxide as "Letheon". It seems that legally one cannot patent natural gases, but Morton added another gas to the nitrous oxide to make the odor less unpleasant. He thought this would create a binding patent. It didn't, and his many attempts to get it patented never succeeded. The film makes it look like Morton did get it finally, when President Franklin Pierce (played by Porter Hall here - who does not look like that handsome weakling) signed a law recognizing Morton's claim. That did not settle the issue in Morton's favor.
None of the three men did well by their joint discovery. Wells became (like Michael Caine in CIDER HOUSE RULES) an addict, and committed suicide in a New York City jail in 1847. Morton actually did have a better career than Wells (in 1849 he gave testimony at the trial of Dr. John Webster for the murder of Dr. George Parkman at Harvard - testimony identifying a jaw as Dr. Parkman's which helped convict Webster). He died in 1868 (also in New York City) still trying to prove title to "Letheon". Jackson made a career of distinction in geology circles, but he kept claiming credit for inventions by other people (Samuel Morse's telegraph, some devices of Professor Joseph Henry of the Smithsonian Institute). He finally died in a madhouse in 1880.
Given the savage results of their fates, one wishes the "downer" version of the film still existed to see how Sturgis might have handled the story. But he still would have made Morton look better than his character fully deserved.
By the way, while Wells, Morton, and Jackson fought for credit for "letheon" in Massachusetts, in Athens, Georgia Dr. Crawford Long had done occasional minor surgery on patients using nitrous oxide. Long, a quiet, honorable country practitioner, wrote about it in some local journals. He never blew his horn about his "great moment". Instead, he lived and died a respected doctor and neighbor. Mark Twain mentioned how "a Northern slicker" (Morton, probably) had stolen the credit from Dr. Long. Oddly enough, the U.S. Postal Service agreed. In 1942, as part of their "Great American Issue" of stamps, among the five scientists was Dr. Long, as the inventor/discover of anesthesia. Apparently no comments by Sturgis about this stamp have ever turned up. One wonders what he thought about it.
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