Ether Day: The Strange Tale of America's Greatest Medical Discovery and the Haunted Men Who Made It . By Julie M. Fenster. New York, HarperCollins, 2001. Pages: 278. Price: $63.00.
Some stories are so good that the telling seems secondary, and when the telling is good, the stories are wonderful. The discovery of anesthesia is such a story, and the scholarly telling by Fenster augments the pleasure. Anesthesia is arguably the greatest discovery in medicine. The circumstances and characters surrounding the events leading up to and following ether day lend themselves to great drama. The agony before anesthesia affected surgeon and audience as well as patient. Fenster uses a letter to the Scottish surgeon James Simpson to describe the patient's view:“Suffering so great as I underwent cannot be expressed in words … the blank whirlwind of emotion, the horror of great darkness, and the sense of desertion by God and man, bordering close upon despair, which swept through my mind and overwhelmed my heart, I can never forget. …” Then, the demonstration on October 16, 1846 swept that away. Gone were the pain, the fear, and the despair.
What a cast it was of unlikely, sometimes foolish, scandalous, generous, greedy, grand, intelligent characters: the dreamer Wells, who some believe to be the true discoverer of anesthesia; the obsequious, brilliant, self-serving Jackson, who did not focus enough to make use of his brilliance; the con man and scoundrel Morton, acknowledged by most to be the discoverer of anesthesia, a thief and liar whose bravado facilitated the demonstration of the anesthetic powers of ether; the erudite hero Warren; the gentleman (in the truest sense) Long; the honest, clever, and generous showman Colton. They all come together in this play that is so magnificent it seems improbable. Did it really happen? Yes, it did.
Then, Fenster guides us through the years that follow the discovery. None of the three principle claimants gain happiness or wealth from the discovery. Wells commits suicide. Jackson dies bitter and unrecognized. Morton fails to convince Congress to reward him for the gift he gave us, dying a pauper. We are indebted to them all.
I talk with residents about the great thing we do every day, something that we take for granted, the gift of anesthesia. Few know of the origins of the gift or of the men who participated in the discovery. Fenster offers us a grand view of this wonder.