31.1.12

The Painful History of Painless Dentistry

31 January 1891 - Hartford, Connecticut

Horace Wells statue in Bushnell Park
In Bushnell Park, near the east end of the pond, stands the bronze statue of a gentleman wearing a bowtie and holding a cane. On the pedestal is carved: “Horace Wells, the Discoverer of Anaesthseia, December 1844.” I was intrigued by this. Who was Wells and why was his statue here in Hartford?

What I uncovered was a tale that sounded like something out of a Gothic horror--a gentle doctor turned into a monster by his own experiments! A real life Jekyll and Hyde. And yet a man whose soul purpose was to help humanity.

Horace Wells was born in 1815 in the town of Hartford, Vermont into a well-to-do, family. Wells learned Dentistry in Boston and in 1836 setup practice here in Hartford, Connecticut. He became quite successful with some of the city’s most illustrious citizens as his patients. He was well known for his promotion of dental hygiene, in effect trying to put himself out of business.

However these were the early days of dentistry. Dentists learned their trade from other dentists. Extraction was usually the only method of treatment and had to be performed without painkillers. The best dentists were those who could pull teeth the fastest while the patient squirmed and screamed in pain. There was no known effective painkiller. Yet it was necessary. An abscessed tooth killed many a man before dentists.

Horace Wells
Wells was a highly sensitive soul who was sometimes so traumatized by the pain he inflicted he would have to take a day or two off to recover. There had to be a better way.

Elizabeth Wells thought a night’s entertainment might do her husband Horace some good. On 10 December 1844 “Professor” Gardner Quincy Colton came to town with his show. A former medical student, he left school when he discovered he could make good money putting on demonstrations with nitrous oxide, better know as laughing gas.


Nitrous oxide had been around since the 1790s. No one could find a good use for it, except as a recreational drug for the rich or as sideshow entertainment. Lectures like Colton’s would let volunteers take a few puffs on stage, so their neighbors could laugh at their antics. One of the most common effects was to give the user the giggles, thus the name “laughing gas.”

That evening one of the volunteers was Samuel Cooley, a clerk at the local drugstore. He got inebriated by the gas, stumbled and hit his leg. He came down off the stage and sat next to Wells. Cooley pulled up his pants leg revealing a wound. “I can’t feel a thing!” Cooley said in amazement.

Wells instantly saw the significance. Could nitrous oxide be used to stop the pain of pulling teeth? Wells needed a guinea pig to prove his theory. Being the noble man that he was, he decided he would be the volunteer.

Gardner Colton
Wells asked Colton to come to his office the next day. Colton administered the gas until Wells became unconscious. Wells’ student, John Riggs, pulled Well’s worst molar. When Wells woke up he exclaimed he hadn’t felt a thing. Painless dentistry was born.

In the following weeks Wells used nitrous oxide on over a dozen patients with great success. This was too good to keep a secret. The world needed to know. So in January 1845 Wells went to the Boston, home of the Harvard Medical School. At Massachusetts General Hospital he demonstrated his new discovery.

Something went wrong. The gas was probably pulled away too soon. When Dr. John Warren extracted the tooth, the patient woke up howling in pain. The students laughed and booed, the doctors scoffed, and Wells slunk away humiliated.

Wells had a nervous breakdown and had to quit his practice. In July he had recovered enough to help local surgeons by administering nitrous oxide to their patients. Harvard might have rejected him, but Hartford believed in him.

William Morton
Then in 1846, Wells former student, William Morton, gave a demonstration to the same audience pulling a tooth using ether (except Morton called it “letheon,” hoping to patent it.) Wells had experimented with ether, but had decided nitrous oxide was safer. Morton’s demonstration went without a hitch and he was proclaimed a genius. Wells now felt betrayed.

Wells left the country and went to France, hoping to start a business as an art dealer. However his reputation proceeded him. He was persuaded to give demonstrations in some leading medical institutions in Paris. The French were amazed and began using his methods. You can find a statue to Horace Wells in Paris today.

In January of 1848, Wells moved to New York City. He began studying chloroform as a possible anesthesia, trying to find the best and safest doses. As always he used himself as the first test subject. He very quickly discovered that the sweet-smelling liquid is not only highly addictive, it’s highly toxic and causes one to become deranged!

While under the influence, Wells ran out in the street and threw sulfuric acid on the clothes of two prostitutes. One was burned on the neck. He was immediately arrested and sent to New York City’s Tombs Prison. After a week Wells head cleared and the full horror of what he had done hit him. He took one last dose of chloroform to blot out the pain, then slit a major artery in his thigh and quickly bled to death.

Horace Wells was only thirty-three years old. He left a letter to his wife telling her he had become mad and begging her forgiveness. His body was taken back to Hartford, Connecticut and buried at Cedar Hill Cemetery. Hartford was horrified at the bizarre fate of their beloved dentist. In 1875 they erected this lovely statue to him.

As for the fate of the other players:
William Morton spent the rest of his life trying to prove he invented the use of anesthesia and trying to patent it. He went so far as to attempt to sue the United States Government.

John Riggs
Wells other student, John Riggs, inherited Wells practice, and later went on to become the leading authority on periodontal disease and its treatment in the United States.

And Gardner Colton decided to strike it rich in California. Failing that, he moved back east in 1863. He started the Colton Dental Association with clinics in New Haven and New York City, using his old knowledge of administering nitrous oxide. Between 1864 and 1897, Colton and his associates used the gas to safely extract tens of thousands of teeth. Ironically, it was the former huckster who made nitrous oxide popular with dentists everywhere.

I’m sure Horace Wells would have been pleased at “Professor” Colton’s success and helping to spread the word. Wells never wanted to get rich off his discovery. He only wanted to make dentistry painless. He gave his life to that cause.

5 comments:

DuSyl said...

Great research into the Man the statue was made for. Thank goodness for his willingness to make dentistry less painfull.

Dr. Wendell Howe said...

Thank you. I thought he deserved my attention. The statue had such a kindly face.

cosmetic dentistry said...

cosmetic dentistry Richmond owes a lot to this folks! great research!

Anonymous said...

I have problem in tooth but i have afraid to go because of pain.In that ,I read your article to get idea to go for it.

Dentist El Paso TX

Dr. Wendell Howe said...

Dear Anonymous:

Please, don't ignore tooth pain. It can lead to other health problems. Indeed in ancient burials archaeologists are constantly finding skulls with bone eaten away on the jaw. They immediately know the cause of death--abscessed tooth. A tooth ache can kill you!

Sincerly yours,
Dr. Wendell A. Howe