We have come to think of surgery as relatively safe and reliable, but this was not always the case. Surgery was once a brutal ordeal to be undertaken only in extreme circumstances; surgeons used cotton wool to muffle the screams as patients sat upright, bound by leather to elevated chairs.
The only way to curb the pain was by use of alcohol and opiates, though many surgeons believed pain was vital for keeping the patient alive. It was a traumatic experience for doctor and patient alike.
It is hardly surprising, then, that word spread rapidly around the world when, in 1846, renowned surgeon Dr. John Warren staged a public demonstration at Massachusetts General Hospital of a new drug, ether. He and a colleague anesthetized patient Edward Abbott and removed a tumor from his neck.
Reportedly, Abbott awoke and said, “Feels as if my neck’s been scratched.”
Warren, who was also the first dean of Harvard Medical School, turned triumphantly to the audience and proclaimed: “Gentlemen, this is no humbug!”
Ether changed surgery forever. It has since been replaced with safer alternatives, but its place in history is secure: The operating theater at Mass. General was designated a National Historic Site in 1965.
Today, visitors can explore the unique architecture of the hospital’s Ether Dome, as well as a small collection of artifacts, including an oil painting of the famous first surgery. The dome also houses Padihershef, an Egyptian mummy donated to the hospital in 1823.
Take a 360 degree tour of the Ether Dome: