- I Awaken to Glory: Essays Celebrating the Sesquicentennial of the Discovery of Anesthesia by Horace Wells, December 11, 1844–December 11, 1994
Who discovered surgical anesthesia? The question has plagued historians of anesthesiology since William Thomas Green Morton proposed that he receive compensation for demonstrating the anesthetic properties of sulfuric ether. Rivals for the honor of being named discoverer of surgical anesthesia range from the obscure William E. Clarke of Rochester, New York, to Crawford Long of Jefferson, Georgia, to the subject of this book, Horace Wells. In the editor’s introduction, Richard Wolfe sets forth his intent to conclusively “prove” that the credit for the discovery of surgical anesthesia should be solely Wells’s.
The merits of Wells’s case are both the strength and the weakness of the volume. Interestingly, this festschrift honoring the 150th anniversary of Wells’s work contains essays on every conceivable aspect of his life. His dental casebook, for example, is analyzed, and demonstrates that he was a leading dentist in his community. Another essay is concerned with daily life in Hartford, Connecticut, of the 1840s, including a map of the town and a description of Wells’s church. Elizabeth and Charles Wells, the wife and son of the protagonist, are studied in detail, as is every known image of Horace Wells. In the end, the reader uncovers a rich portrait of this tragic, suicidal figure in the discovery of anesthesia.
The authors believe that Wells alone deserves credit for the discovery of surgical anesthesia. Overworking this theme, the essays become repetitive, and there is some disregard for other well-known historical figures in the story of the discovery of surgical anesthesia. The analysis of the milieu of the 1840s is a repetition of somewhat tired arguments attempting to demonstrate a progression of thought from Humphrey Davy to William Morton. More recent scholarship on the issues of influences of romanticism and other cultural ties to the time has been largely ignored.
Yet this work is a must for those who study the discovery of surgical anesthesia. The primary source work is superb, and part of Wells’s casebook is publicly reproduced for the first time. The photographs of statues and portraits give a sense of the importance of the man, different from the more recent interpretation of Wells as the first substance-abusing anesthetist. In the end, there is much to recommend in this book—but it falls short of its stated goal: to convince the reader that Horace Wells was the sole discoverer of surgical anesthesia. Nor is it the final word on a fascinating individual who participated in one of the momentous events in the history of medicine.