January 24, 2008

January 24 | Horace Wells

January 21, 1815 - January 24, 1848: Age 33

Next time you visit the dentist, spare a thought for Horace Wells, the young American dentist who had the bright idea that people should not be in pain while having their teeth fixed. Wells witnessed a demonstration of the effects of nitrous oxide, and immediately connected it with the notion of painless surgery, or at least distress-free surgery. The very next day he had himself put under and himself became the first dental patient to have a tooth removed painlessly.

At the time, other dentists were also experimenting with other kinds of anaesthesia, but Wells was determined to prove that nitrous oxide was the best. Unfortunately he staged a demonstration in front of medical students during which the gas was incorrectly administered, and the patient cried out in pain. He never lived it down.

Unfortunately he was prone to experimenting on himself in comparing the effects of various pain-killing drugs. Soon he became addicted to nitrous oxide, and on his birthday in 1848, January 21, he was arrested for causing a disturbance in a public place while high on chloroform. When he sobered up he wrote a letter confessing that he had provided sulfuric acid to a friend, who then went and throw on a local prostitute in revenge. He was so distraught that he dosed himself with chloroform, got high as a kite, and in a state of complete exhileration took the remainder of the sulfuric acid, ran out into the street, and threw it on some passing women.

"I cannot proceed," he wrote. "My hand is too unsteady and my whole frame is convulsed in agony. My brain is on fire."

He was allowed to go home for some personal items, on his promise to return to jail. An honourable man, he did just that, but the personal items he retrieved included more chloroform and a razor. In a note to his wife, he stated, "I feel that I am fast becoming a deranged man, or I would desist from this act. I can not live and keep my reason, and on this account God will forgive the deed. I can say no more."

He inhaled some chloroform to dull the pain, then cut his leg to the bone, slitting an artery. He was found dead in his cell the next morning, the empty bottle of chloroform by his side.

Sources: Wikipedia; Forbes, Malcolm, They Went That-A-Way, Simon and Shuster, New York, 1988.

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