"There will come a time when the world will look back
to modern vivisection in the name of science
as they now do the burning at the stake
in the name of religion"
Henry J. Bigelow, MD, Surgical Anaesthesia:
Addresses, and other papers (1894)
Henry Bigelow detested any kind of cruelty or suffering. He was also a distinguished surgeon, a gifted clinical pharmacologist, and author of the extended essay, "A History of the Discovery of Modern Anaesthesia" [published in A Century of American Medicine [Philadephia, Henry c. Lee, 1876]. Bigelow notes how the ideal agent for modern surgical anaesthesia should induce insensibility that is safe, sustainable and complete. The problem with stupefaction induced by mandragora, henbane, opium and hemp was that it is partial, occasional and dangerous. Ether wasn't perfect, indeed it is flammable; but it was good enough to launch the anaesthetic revolution.
While a junior surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), Bigelow sponsored Horace Wells' abortive nitrous oxide demonstration of January 1845. Later in 1846, Bigelow came across a local newspaper item on dentist William Morton's practice of pain-free dental extraction under ether. Eben Frost, a Boston merchant, had first asked to be mesmerized. Morton said he had a better solution. The newspaper article that caught Bigelow's eye was written by a journalist at the Boston Daily Journal, Albert G. Tenney. Tenney had witnessed Morton's extraction of the etherized Eben Frost's ulcerous tooth, reporting it in print the next day.
Bigelow then met up with Morton. With the young surgeon's assistance, a public demonstration of the innovation was arranged. Morton was no stranger about town: he had matriculated at Harvard Medical School in the autumn of 1844 and he attended various lecture courses through 1845. He was almost certainly among the spectators present when his former partner Wells had been humiliated some twenty months before in front of an audience of scornful medical students and a scattering of surgeons. Bigelow's venerable colleague, John Collins Warren, head surgeon at the Massachusetts General Hospital, again agreed to operate. It seems unlikely Warren would have again consented unless he recognised that there was a good prospect of success, though this remains speculative.
Bigelow's influential account of what unfolded in the surgical amphitheatre was published a few weeks later in the Boston Medical Surgery Journal. Bigelow later wrote prolifically on the topic of ether and chloroform anaesthesia.