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Born in Hartford, Vermont, Wells was educated in Walpole, New Hampshire before studying dentistry in Boston. After obtaining a degree, Wells set up a practice in Hartford, Connecticut, with an associate named William T. G. Morton, who would become famous for his use of ether as an anesthetic on October 16, 1846.
Wells first bore witness to the effects of nitrous oxide in 1844 when he volunteered to have it demonstrated on him by Gardner Quincy Colton, a member of a traveling circus. Wells felt nothing, and was the first patient to be operated on under anesthesia, having his tooth extracted later that year by his associate, John Riggs. He then began utilising it on his own patients. He did not attempt to patent the discovery because he stated that pain relief should be 'as free as the air'.
He gave a demonstration to medical students at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston in 1845. However, the gas was improperly administered and the patient cried out in pain. The audience of students in the surgical theatre jeered "humbug". [Some time later, when ether was first successfully demonstrated for surgical anesthesia, in that same operating theatre, the respected surgeon, who was present for Wells's demonstration, declared "gentlemen, this is no humbug". Because of this embarrassment, Wells was discredited in the medical community. Later, however, Wells successfully had one of his own teeth removed while using inhalant anesthesia, proving its uses.]
After this disgrace, Wells gave up dentistry and became a travelling salesman for the next two years, wandering Connecticut and selling canaries, shower baths and other household items. In 1847, he left for Paris after being given a demonstration on anesthesia by his prosperous former partner William Morton.
Sometime after returning to the United States, Wells became addicted to chloroform. At that time the effects of sniffing chloroform and ether were not known.[clarification needed] In January 1848, Wells self-experimented with chloroform for a period of four weeks. He became increasingly deranged. One day, delirious, Wells rushed out into the street and threw sulfuric acid over the clothing of two prostitutes. He was committed to New York's infamous Tombs Prison. As the influence of the drug waned, Wells' mind started to clear. In despair, he realised the horror of what he had done. Wells requested the Guards to escort him to his house to pick up his shaving kit, then committed suicide, slitting an artery in his leg with a razor after inhaling an analgesic dose of chloroform to blot out the pain.
Wells is buried at Cedar Hill Cemetery in Hartford, Connecticut.
A monument to Horace Wells was raised in the Place des États-Unis, Paris.
In popular culture
- The story of Dr. Wells' self-experimentation with drugs was explored in an episode of Science Channel's Dark Matters: Twisted But True in a story entitled "Jekyll vs Hyde", comparing it to the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
- A full-length theatrical production, entitled Ether Dome, written by Elizabeth Egloff and directed by Michael Wilson centers around the story of Horace Wells' discovery of nitrous oxide as an anesthetic, as well as the life of his protege and partner, William Morton.
Horace Wells Burial Monument (1909), Cedar Hills Cemetery, Hartford, Connecticut (Louis Potter, sculptor).
- Shklar, G; Carranza, FA: The Historical Background of Periodontology. In Newman, MG; Takei, HH; Carrana FA, editors: Carranza’s Clinical Periodontology, 9th Edition. Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders Company, 2002. page 7.
- "Miniature Portrait of Horace Wells". National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved 2008-06-30.
- Smith, Ken. Raw Deal. Blast Books: New York, 1998. pp. 62-3.
- Smith, Ken. Raw Deal. Blast Books: New York, 1998. pp. 63.
- "Suicide of Dr. Horace Wells, of Hartford, Connecticut, U.S". Providence Medical and Surgical Journal 12 (11): 305–306. 1848-05-31. PMC 2487383. PMID 20794459. Retrieved 16 April 2009.
- Horace Wells
- Fenster, Julie M. (2001). Ether Day — The Strange Tale of America's Greatest Medical Discovery and the Haunted Men Who Made It. New York: HarperCollins. ISBN 0-06-019523-1.
- Musto, David F., "They Inhaled", New York Times, August 12, 2001 (review of Ether Day)
- Wells, Horace (1847). A History of the Discovery of the Application of Nitrous Oxide Gas, Ether, and Other Vapors to Surgical Operations. Hartford: J. Gaylord Wells.