Birthplace: Hartford, VT
Location of death: New York City
Cause of death: Suicide
Remains: Buried, Cedar Hill Cemetery, Hartford, CT
Race or Ethnicity: White
Nationality: United States
Executive summary: Nitrous oxide as a surgical anesthetic
Horace Wells was the first dentist to use nitrous oxide as anesthesia in tooth extractions. Commonly called laughing gas, the drug had previously been used primarily at parties and in traveling shows. Wells had no formal schooling in dentistry, but apprenticed with an established dentist for a year and a half, then opened a dental practice in Hartford, CT. Dissatisfied with the primitive painkillers of his time and weary of patients writhing and screaming while he worked, he experimented with nitrous oxide to control pain, and showed his nitrous oxide technique at Harvard in 1845. The demonstration, however, went poorly, and the dentists, doctors and students in the audience were not convinced that the drug had been effective.
Instead, ether soon became the standard anesthetic used in dentistry, after being demonstrated by Wells' former student and business partner, William T. G. Morton. Wells and Morton feuded for several years, as Wells maintained that nitrous oxide was as effective as ether but less dangerous, and also argued that since he had experimented with ether before Morton, he deserved credit for that discovery. Ironically, as Wells continued his experiments with painkillers he became addicted to chloroform. He was arrested in New York City in early 1848 after allegedly attacking a prostitute, and jailed pending trial in the city's infamous Tombs Prison, where he slashed himself to death with a razor.
More than a decade after Wells' death, the use of nitrous oxide as a dental anesthetic was popularized by a dental supply salesman, Gardner Quincy Colton. In 1864 the American Dental Association honored Wells, posthumously, as the discoverer of modern anesthesia, and the American Medical Association similarly recognized Wells' accomplishments in 1870.
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