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The Ether War:

In Sickness & In Health: Medicine in the Old Colony
by Peggy M. Baker, Director & Librarian
Pilgrim Society & Pilgrim Hall Museum
As part of an exhibition at Pilgrim Hall Museum

William T.G. Morton performed the first successful public demonstration of ether anesthesia at Massachusetts General Hospital on October 16, 1846.

But did he “discover” the idea? Dr. Charles T. Jackson (a native of Plymouth) said not.

Several days after Morton’s demonstration, Jackson claimed that the discovery was actually his. Jackson said he had been experimenting with ether for several years and was the first to discover that inhaling ether could deaden the pain of surgery. He remembered educating a totally ignorant Morton, not only on the properties of ether but on its specific application as an anesthetic, during a visit that Morton had paid to his laboratory.

Morton’s recollection of that visit differed dramatically. Morton said he had independently thought of using ether as a surgical anesthetic and had been conducting secret experiments, visiting Jackson’s laboratory only to procure a device for his inhaler prototype. Morton claimed he never revealed the true nature of his experiments to Jackson, and that Jackson offered him only very general information on the properties of ether.

The dispute escalated into intrigue, deceit and manipulation. Both the claimants were uncompromising, difficult and determined men. Each took their case to the court of public opinion. The stakes were high - money, prestige and personal honor.

Who were these claimants?

Charles Thomas Jackson was the son of Lucy Cotton and Charles Jackson, a well-to-do Plymouth merchant, ship owner and landowner. Born in 1805, he grew up with his older sisters Lucy and Lydia.

When Charles T. was 8 years old, his family moved into the “Winslow House” on North Street (today, considerably ornamented, it is the headquarters of the General Society of Mayflower Descendants).

The Winslow House on North Street as it looked in
the 19th century when Charles T. Jackson lived there.

Charles demonstrated an early interest in science, particularly in chemistry and geology. His sister Lydia wrote in 1821, when Charles was 16, “I am afraid Charles is too much engaged in it [chemistry]… I hope I shall not hear again of his raising a rebellion in the kitchen with his experiments.” Avoiding the study of liberal arts altogether, Charles went straight to the scientific program offered by Harvard Medical School and, after his graduation in 1829, studied geology in Paris for 3 years. On his return to the States, he married and settled in Roxbury to establish a medical practice. Medicine never truly did capture Charles’ whole attention, however, and he spent most of his time and energy on mineralogy and analytical chemistry, undertaking geological surveys and establishing a large private laboratory.

Charles had undertaken his first geological survey in 1826, chartering a schooner to investigate the Bay of Fundy. The results were his first publication and his first professional dispute. Canadian physician and geologist Abraham Gesner (who later invented the distillation process for the extraction of kerosene) had also been studying the area and published his own massive report in 1836. In 1840, Jackson accused Gesner of plagiarism. (In the 1850s, Gesner lost a court case over mining rights - the chief spokesman for his adversaries was Charles T. Jackson, a man with a long memory!)

Jackson also disputed Samuel S.F. Morse’s patent for the telegraph, claiming that invention was also his. Jackson, in 1840, recalled explaining to Morse, while both were passengers onboard ship in 1832, how to apply electricity to telegraphic use. Morse’s recollection of the conversations, confirmed by others present on the ship, was that Jackson had merely described various experiments being carried out by European scientists, inspiring Morse to turn his inventive mind towards the electromagnetic recording telegraph.

Jackson’s most tenacious claim, however, was as the inventor of ether as a surgical anesthetic.

Jackson’s adversary was William T. G. Morton, a 27-year-old dentist with a history of underhanded business dealings and the briefest of medical educations. Morton’s tutor, Boston dentist Horace Wells, had attempted a public demonstration of the anesthetic effects of inhaled nitrous oxide, or “laughing gas.” (Both ether and nitrous oxide had enjoyed a passing fame in the early 1800s, being inhaled recreationally by daring young folks as mood-altering drugs.) Wells' experiment was a failure. Morton, according to his own account, made the mental leap from Wells’ failed experiment to using ether as an inhalation anesthesia and began his own experiments. Morton successfully administered ether as an anesthetic during an actual dental procedure - and he did so in the presence of an invited newspaper reporter (although the exact nature of the anesthesia used remained a secret). Morton also consulted with a patent attorney.

Morton then made his successful public demonstration of his anesthesia at Mass General, following up with a second demonstration the next morning.

Several days later, Charles Jackson claimed that the invention was his and demanded from Morton a fee of $500 against 10% of the revenues. In response, Morton and his patent attorney talked Jackson into joining Morton’s patent application. (Morton was to receive 65% of the revenues, the attorney 25% and Jackson 10%.) And the nature of Morton’s anesthetic - ether - became publicly known.

The controversy became more and more public. Impassioned articles were written on behalf of both claimants.

Click here for the words of a Jackson supporter.

Click here for the words of a Morton supporter.

Massachusetts General Hospital issued a report on the controversy, declaring that Morton deserved credit for the discovery - with the acknowledgment that, without Jackson’s scientific advice, Morton would probably not have been able to make his discovery. The French Academy of Sciences reached a similar verdict in 1850.

The medal awarded by the French Academy of
Sciences to both Charles Jackson and William Morton.

The Academy specified that both Jackson and Morton would share in the honor, each receiving a gold medal and an equal cash prize of 2,500 francs; the award to Jackson “for his observations and experiments on the anaesthetical effects produced by the inhalation of ether” and the award to Morton “for having introduced this method in the practice of surgery.”

Neither man was pleased. The positions of both continued to harden.

The signature of Charles T. Jackson 
in Pilgrim Hall Museum's copy of 
A Manual of Etherization

By the time Jackson published A Manual of Etherization in 1861, he was claiming that he not only educated Morton on the anesthetic properties of ether but had specifically employed Morton (whom he characterized as “a nominal medical pupil of mine”) to make his famous demonstration at Massachusetts General Hospital on his, Jackson’s, behalf.

Another dispute, meanwhile, was brewing in the medical world. Painless surgery was an unimaginable gift. Before the discovery of ether’s anesthetic properties, surgery was carried out on conscious patients, roped to operating tables to minimize movement. Even though surgery was the only hope for saving their lives, many patients preferred death, by nontreatment or even suicide.

Physicians and surgeons were outraged that painless surgery might not be freely available to those in need. Was it ethical to take out a patent on something so crucial to public welfare? And could a common substance such as ether even be patented?

In fact, the patent did collapse. Ether was ruled not to be a new compound. It thus could not be patented. Morton then requested an award of $100,000 from Congress for the US Army’s battlefield use of his invention, etherisation. Jackson protested. Morton had his supporters in Congress, Jackson had his supporters. Horace Wells (who had reentered the picture, claiming that without his failed experiment with inhaled laughing gas, neither Jackson nor Morton would have thought of using ether as an inhalation anesthesia) had his supporters. A new claim was made on behalf of southern physician Crawford Long who had, without realizing the significance of his experiment, documented the use of ether in minor surgery before either Jackson or Morton.

The matter was investigated, it was debated, it was submitted and resubmitted and finally, never determined.

Horace Wells died an early suicide after becoming addicted to an even newer anesthetic, chloroform.

Crawford Long had no interest in pursuing his claim in a political or public forum. He enjoyed a long and useful career as a practicing physician in Georgia.

William Morton continued to petition, to file lawsuits, to lecture. In the summer of 1868, outraged by an article in the
Atlantic Monthly which gave full credit for the invention of ether to Jackson, a debt-ridden Morton traveled to New York, then in the middle of a deadly heat wave, where he died of “congestion of the brain,” age 48.

Charles Jackson, cushioned by his family inheritance, continued to work as a chemist and a surveyor. In 1873, at age 67, after suffering a seizure, he was diagnosed as insane and taken to McLean Asylum, a part of Massachusetts General Hospital. He spent 7 years at McLean, dying there in 1880.

And the winner is…?

William Morton has won the vote of most modern medical historians and anesthesiologists, who believe that the historical evidence is overwhelmingly in his favor. According to the Boston History Collaborative, although Morton certainly built on the work of others and leaned on the advice of Jackson, it was his “bold demonstration [that] opened the floodgates for surgical procedures that provided the groundwork for new lifesaving surgeries.”

Charles Jackson’s supporters, led by his sister Lidian Jackson Emerson, never gave up the fight on his behalf. Jackson’s niece Edith Emerson Forbes may be responsible for the wording of the plaque that can be found today in Plymouth’s Brewster Garden.

Dedicated to the memory of Lidian Emerson, wife of Ralph Waldo Emerson of Concord, daughter of Charles and Lucy Cotton Jackson of Plymouth, and of her brother Charles Thomas Jackson, M.D., discoverer of the safe method of using ether for anaesthesia in surgery.

William T. Davis, in his Plymouth Memories of an Octogenarian, characterizes his fellow Plymouthean gently

He [Jackson] knew too much, and too many things for him to develop, and by his own labors to apply to practical use. His mind was like a garden so crowded with vegetation of his own planting that none or few reached perfect bloom and seed. But the passerby attracted by one or another, though ignorant of botany, would pluck a slip or a root, and setting it in his own grounds, by unremitting care nurse it into vigorous growth and a perfected life. Without the garden which the gardener had planted, the passerby would never have found the plant, and without the act of the passerby the plant would have died and the labors of the gardener would have been in vain

The Ether Monument, unveiled in Boston's Public Garden in 1868, gives no credit at all. The granite statue atop the 40-foot obelisk is a representation of the Good Samaritan comforting the afflicted.

Sources held in Pilgrim Hall Museum’s Library include Charles T. Jackson’s First report on the geology of Maine (Augusta, Me.: The State, 1837), Martin Gay’s A statement of the claims of Charles T. Jackson, M.D. to the discovery of the applicability of sulphuric ether to the prevention of pain in surgical operations (Boston, 1847), William T. Morton’s Report to the House of Representatives on sulphuric ether (Washington, DC: The Congress, 1852), Edward Waldo Emerson’s A history of the gift of painless surgery (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Co. , 1896), and Delores Bird Carpenter’s The selected letters of Lidian Jackson Emerson (Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 1987). The contemporary arguments on behalf of both Morton and Jackson - along with a flavor of the intense controversy the issue generated in the 1840’s - can found found in the pages of Littell’s Living Age Magazine, online at Cornell University’s Making of America Website (, which makes available the text of over 100,000 19th century journal articles. Other sources used include the Internet sites of the Harvard Medical School Department of Anesthesia (, the UCLA School of Dentistry (, the Alabama State Society of Anesthesiologists ( and New Brunswick (Canada) Community College (

For a wonderful modern retelling of the story of Morton, Jackson et al, read
Ether day: the strange tale of America’s greatest medical discovery by Julie M. Fenster (HarperCollins Publishers, c2001)

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