The Ether Monument: A Story of Beauty and Controversy. By Rafael Ortega, M.D. Park Ridge, Illinois, Wood Library-Museum of Anesthesiology, 2009. Approximate running time: 22 minutes. Price: $27.50.
Most anesthesiologists who remember their history know that the first public demonstration of ether anesthesia occurred in Boston, Massachusetts on October 16, 1846. They might even remember that the location was the Ether Dome at Massachusetts General Hospital, and that Dr. William T. G. Morton (1819–1868) administered the ether. But few will know the history of The Ether Monument that commemorates this event. Rafael Ortega, M.D., Professor of Anesthesiology at the Boston Medical Center, in collaboration with the Wood Library-Museum of Anesthesiology, Park Ridge, Illinois, has worked to rectify our ignorance by making this DVD. This presentation is based on his 2006 book Written in Granite: An Illustrated History of the Ether Monument , the sales of which have provided a source of maintenance funding for the monument.
On March 13, 1866, Mr. Thomas Lee (1779–1867) informed the city government of Boston that “I propose to erect and present to the city a monument in the form of a fountain, as an expression of gratitude for the relief of human suffering occasioned by the discovery of the anesthetic properties of sulfuric ether.” Work began on the monument in 1867, and on June 27, 1868, it was completed and presented to the city.
The Ether Monument: A Story of Beauty and Controversy is an excellent 22-min introduction in a DVD format into the history of ether anesthesia and of the Ether Monument. The narrator states that the discovery of ether anesthesia was “one of the most important events in the history of medicine.” It would be no exaggeration to state that the alleviation of pain during surgery was one of the most important events in the history of mankind. This one simple act has allowed the treatment of a myriad of surgical and medical conditions, and has brought cure and relief to countless millions of patients.
Salient individuals involved in the discovery of anesthesia controversy are mentioned: Crawford Long (1815–1878), Horace Wells (1815–1848), Charles Jackson (1805–1880), and William T.G. Morton. All have monuments or commemoratives erected in their honor as the “discoverer of anesthesia.” But it was the event in Boston on October 16, 1846, where the first public demonstration of ether anesthesia occurred that would change all of medicine and surgery. What is striking about the Ether Monument is that it does not mention any single individual; rather, it mentions only the month and year in which this event occurred.
This DVD presentation makes use of Boston archival photographs and drawings to present the history of the location of the Ether Monument. It is in the northwest corner of the Public Gardens, a serene park-like setting amid the activity and bustle of what is now a busy city. Mr. Henry Lee, president of The Friends of The Public Gardens and whose great uncle was the monument’s founding benefactor, Mr. Thomas Lee, intermittently discusses several minutes of its history, such as the site chosen for the monument.
Each of the four sides of the monument has an inscription pertinent to the discovery of anesthesia, and above each inscription is a bas-relief depicting four aspects of ether anesthesia: A Civil War depiction of the injured and surgery on an anesthetized soldier; surgery on an anesthetized patient in a public hospital; a woman personifying the divinely ordained triumph of science in medicine alongside another woman with a child in her lap, possibly depicting the relief of pain in childbirth; and an angel of mercy benevolently hovering above a man in pain.
Atop the monument is a sculpture of the biblical story of The Good Samaritan providing aid and comfort to the injured man. A pool of water at the base of the monument “serves in reminding the spectator of the Pool of Bethesda where the sick waited to be cured of their diseases.”
The final minutes of the presentation discuss the past and present needs for restoration. Unbelievably, the Ether Monument lay abandoned and in need of repair for several years. In the late 1970s the initial restoration occurred, but deterioration and disrepair soon recurred. The most recent renovation was begun in May 2006, and was financed by private and public sources.
The Ether Monument: A Story of Beauty and Controversy is a delight to watch and leaves the viewer with a desire for more. It instills in the viewer a sense of pride in his or her chosen profession. Time seems transcended, and the viewer can almost sense the original magnitude of meaning of the north inscription: “In gratitude for the relief of human suffering by the inhaling of ether, a citizen of Boston has erected this monument, A.D. MDCCCLXVII.”
Wake Forest University School of Medicine, Winston-Salem, North Carolina. firstname.lastname@example.org