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DR. HORACE WELLS AND THE CONQUEST OF SURGICAL PAIN: A PROMETHEAN TALE RICHARD B. GUNDERMAN* Prometheus, the Titan who stole fire from heaven for the benefit of mankind; whom, in punishment, Zeus chained to a rock where a vulture came each day to eat his liver, which Zeus renewed each night. Such ¿s the reward you reap of your man-loving disposition.—Aeschylus [1:28] On the evening of January 23, 1848, one of the great figures in nineteenth-century medicine, Dr. Horace Wells, sat brooding in a New York City jail cell, composing his last will and testament. He was alone, with nothing familiar to gaze on except his watch, his penknife, a vial labeled "chloroform," and his razor. He had been arrested 2 days previously in a state described by the police as "mental derangement" for annoyances committed on Broadway. Specifically, he was charged with throwing sulfuric acid on two prostitutes. He readily admitted to the crime, though he regretted it with his whole heart. Of his present situation he wrote: "I am now in the most miserable condition in which it is possible for man to be placed" [2]. Today Dr. Wells is a hero, memorialized as one of seven "immortals of dentistry" on the mace of the American College of Dentists, and celebrated in numerous plaques, portraits, busts, and statues from Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago, to Bushnell Park in Hartford, Connecticut, to the Place des Etats-Unis in Paris. He is a patron of surgical patients throughout the world, a benefactor to mankind , whose discoveries have relieved the sufferings of millions. On that cold, dark night in January, though, Wells's own suffering ?Lecturer in the Biological Sciences and New Collegiate Division and fellow, Department of Medicine, University of Chicago. Address: 5107 S. Blackstone Ave. #1204, Chicago , Illinois 60615.© 1992 by The University of Chicago. AU rights reserved. 0031-5982/92/3504-0777$01.00 Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 35, 4 ¦ Summer 1992 531 was more than he could bear. Unaware that 2 weeks previously he had been elected an honorary member of the Faculty of Medicine of Paris and heralded internationally as the discoverer of one of the pillars of modern surgical practice, Dr. Horace Wells was in despair. Great God! has it come to this? Is it not all a dream? Before 12 o'clock this night I am to pay the debt of nature. Yes, if I was to go free tomorrow, I could not live and be called a villain. God knows I am not alone. O, my dear mother, brother, and sister, what can I say to you? My anguish will only allow me to bid you farewell. I die tonight, believing that God, who knoweth all hearts, will forgive the dreadful act. I shall spend my remaining time on prayer. Oh! what misery I shall bring upon all my near relatives, and what still more distresses me is the fact that my name is familiar to the whole scientific world, as being connected with an important discovery; and now, while I am scarcely able to hold my pen, I must bid it all farewell! May God forgive me! Oh! my dear wife and child, whom I leave destitute of the means of support—I would still live and work for you, but I cannot—for were I to live on, I should become a maniac. I feel that I am but little better than one already. [2] The next morning, the lifeless body of Dr. Horace Wells, the discoverer of surgical anesthesia, was found by the jail guard. He had completely severed his left femoral artery with his razor, having first inhaled chloroform to deaden the pain, or perhaps to lessen his abhorrence at the act he was about to commit. At the time of his death, Horace Wells was 33 years old. The story of Wells's scientific discoveries occupies an important position in the history of nineteenth-century medicine. The story of Wells the man—pious, inquisitive, compassionate, creative, and selfless—and of how he came to this desperate pass, is one of the more engrossing and tragic in the annals of medical history. That...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-8795
Print ISSN
0031-5982
Pages
pp. 531-548
Launched on MUSE
2015-01-07
Open Access
No
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