Friday, May 6, 2016

Dr. John Collins Warren and His Use of Ether as Anesthetic

Dr. John Collins Warren, circa 1850

When giving tours of the Gibson House, I always share details of Rosamond Warren Gibson’s (1846–1934) family background, noting that within her family were a number of prominent doctors. Among them were her own father, Jonathan Mason Warren; her great-granduncle, Major General Joseph Warren, who was killed in action at the Battle of Bunker Hill; and her paternal grandfather, John Collins Warren.

Dr. John Collins Warren is particularly noteworthy because he is credited with performing the earliest recorded operation using ether as a general anesthetic, in 1846. And, fortunately, he wrote an account of this experiment only a year after the procedure, which was published in 1848.

The potential for ether as a surgical anesthetic had been brought to Dr. Warren’s attention by a Boston dentist, Dr. W.T.G. Morton, who had previously experimented with ether’s pain-relieving capabilities during dental procedures.

In his account of the ether experiment, Dr. Warren noted that “the general properties of ether have been known for more than a century, and the effect of its inhalation in producing exhilaration and insensibility has been known for many years.” Prior to ether’s application as an anesthetic, surgery was a horrendous and painful ordeal.

Dr. Warren captured how sympathetically surgeons felt toward their patients’ experience of pain when he wrote, “What surgeon is there, who has not felt, while witnessing the distress of long painful operations, a sinking of the heart, to which no habit could render him insensible! What surgeon has not at these times been inspired with a wish, to find some means of lessening the sufferings he was obliged to inflict!”

Thus, when Dr. Morton called upon Dr. Warren at the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) in 1846 to propose his ether experiment, Dr. Warren was intrigued and, after reassurances from Dr. Morton, consented to using ether at his next surgery.

The opportunity came shortly thereafter when Dr. Warren was scheduled to operate on a young man in his early twenties. The patient had a tumor on the left side of his neck, which Dr. Warren planned to remove. After making his own preparations, Dr. Warren allowed the dentist to administer the ether. “The patient was then made to inhale a fluid from a tube connected with a glass globe. After four or five minutes he appeared to be asleep, and was thought by Dr. Morton to be in a condition for the operation.”

First Operation Under Ether, Robert C. Hinckley, 1894

At first Dr. Warren doubted the success of the experiment, because at various points in the operation, the patient “move[d] his limbs, cr[ied] out, and utter[ed] extraordinary expressions.” Yet when Dr. Warren consulted with the patient afterward, the young man explained that while he had been aware of the operation, he had felt no pain.

Thrilled by the success of this initial trial, other surgeons at MGH started to administer ether in their own operations, with similar results. News of this successful anesthetic spread. As Dr. Warren wrote, “An immense number of trials of its influence [were subsequently] made in various parts of the world, with a success perhaps as uniform as that of any article employed in medicine or surgery.”

The United States Army took notice, too. During the Mexican-American war (1846–1848), medical officers administered ether to wounded soldiers to perform amputations and other procedures. By the time of the Civil War (1861–1865), however, chloroform had displaced ether as the primary anesthetic used by the military because of its fast-acting nature.

While ether and chloroform are no longer used in surgery today, these two drugs were important contributions to the field of medicine and ended centuries of painful, torturous surgery.

By Timothy Spezia, museum guide

Note from the museum: This is Timothy Spezia’s final blog post, as he graduates from Boston University and moves on to a full-time position in the history field. We wish Tim all the best, and thank him for his excellent work as a museum guide and for all the wonderful posts he has written for the blog!

Image Sources: 
Dr. John Collins Warren,
Ether painting,
“Ether and Chloroform.” History Channel website. Accessed April 20, 2016. http://

Warren, John C., Etherization with Surgical Remarks. Boston: William D. Ticknor & Company, 1848, accessed via, April 20, 2016.