Ether Day: The Strange Tale of America's Greatest Medical Discovery and The Haunted Men Who Made It

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9780060195236: Ether Day: The Strange Tale of America's Greatest Medical Discovery and The Haunted Men Who Made It

Ether Day is the unpredictable story of America's first major scientific discovery -- the use of anesthesia -- told in an absorbing narrative that traces the dawn of modern surgery through the lives of three extraordinary men. Ironically, the "discovery" was really no discovery at all: Ether and nitrous oxide had been known for more than forty years to cause insensitivity to pain, yet, with names like "laughing gas," they were used almost solely for entertainment. Meanwhile, patients still underwent operations during which they saw, heard, and felt every cut the surgeon made. The image of a grim and grisly operating room, like the one in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, was in fact starkly accurate in portraying the conditions of surgery before anesthesia.

With hope for relief seemingly long gone, the breakthrough finally came about by means of a combination of coincidence and character, as a cunning Boston dentist crossed paths with an inventive colleague from Hartford and a brilliant Harvard-trained physician. William Morton, Horace Wells, and Charles Jackson: a con man, a dreamer, and an intellectual. Though Wells was crushed by derision when he tried to introduce anesthetics, Morton prevailed, with help from Jackson. The result was Ether Day, October 16, 1846, celebrated around the world. By that point, though, no honor was enough. Ether Day was not only the dawn of modern surgery, but the beginning of commercialized medicine as well, as Morton patented the discovery.

What followed was a battle so bitter that it sent all three men spiraling wildly out of control, at the same time that anesthetics began saving countless lives. Meticulously researched and masterfully written, Ether Day is a riveting look at one of history's most remarkable untold stories.

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About the Author:

Julie M. Fenster, columnist for the Forbes magazine Audacity, has written articles for publications, including American Heritage, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. She is the author of the best-selling In the Words of Great Business Leaders, the comprehensive Everyday Money, and award-winning books on business history.

From Publishers Weekly:

The fates of the men involved in the first use of anesthesia in surgery in Boston, on October 16, 1846 and its aftermath read like a tragedy by Aeschylus or Racine. Fenster, a columnist for American Heritage and a contributor to the New York Times, ably renders the three main characters, who typify that common 19th-century American combination of brilliance, ambition and mental instability. Charles Jackson, related by marriage to Ralph Waldo Emerson, was more renowned for his geological studies than his medical practice. Horace Wells had been the first to use nitrous oxide in dentistry. William Morton, who designed the delivery device for the ether and administered it, had enjoyed a long career as a con man. After their "unwilling collaboration," they argued about who actually made the discovery and should reap the financial rewards. Jackson, who claimed that Samuel Morse stole the idea for the telegraph from him, was supported by Emerson in his Atlantic Monthly. He spent his final years in a mental institution. Wells was championed by the Connecticut legislature. Later, addicted to chloroform, he committed suicide in jail. Morton failed in his efforts to patent a mixture of ether and oil of orange. After some years unsuccessfully lobbying Congress to reward him, he collapsed in Central Park in 1868 and died en route to a hospital. Fenster jumps between the figures' backstories somewhat confusingly, and her occasionally laughable rhetorical devices would give a high school yearbook editor pause. Nonetheless, this extensive book will attract fans of the history of medicine and 19th-century Americana. Photos and illus. (Aug. 5) Forecast: A 25-city national radio campaign coupled with author appearances in New York City, Boston and Philadelphia will give this book the exposure necessary to sell its 25,000 initial printing.
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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