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Wells was the first of three children of Horace and Betsy Heath Wells, born on January 21, 1815 in Hartford, Vermont. His parents were well-educated and affluent land owners, which allowed him to attend private schools in New Hampshire and Amherst, Massachusetts. At the age of 19 in 1834, Wells began studying dentistry under a 2-year apprenticeship in Boston. The first dental school did not open until 1840 in Baltimore.
At age 23, Wells published a booklet "An Essay on Teeth" in which he advocated for his ideas in preventive dentistry, particularly for the use of a toothbrush. In his booklet, he also described tooth development and oral diseases, where he mentioned diet, infection, and oral hygiene as important factors.
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.
After he completed his dental training in Boston, Wells opened his own office in Hartford, Connecticut on April 4, 1836. Between 1841 and 1845, Wells became a reputable dentist in Hartford, where he had many patients and attracted apprentices. Among his patients were respected members of society such as William Ellsworth, the governor of Connecticut. His three apprentices were John Riggs, C. A. Kingsbury, and William Morton. In 1843, Wells and Morton started a practice in Boston and Wells continued to instruct Morton. John Riggs later became a partner and Kingsbury became one of the founders of Philadelphia Dental College.
Wells first witnessed the effects of nitrous oxide on December 10, 1844, when he and his wife Elizabeth attended a demonstration by Gardner Quincy Colton billed in the Hartford Courant as "A Grand Exhibition of the Effects Produced by Inhaling Nitrous Oxide, Exhilarating, or Laughing Gas." The demonstration took place at Union Hall, Hartford. During the demonstration, a local apothecary shop clerk Samuel A. Cooley became intoxicated by nitrous oxide. While under the influence, Cooley did not react when he struck his legs against a wooden bench while jumping around. After the demonstration, Cooley was unable to recall his actions while under the influence, but found abrasions and bruises on his knees. From this demonstration, Wells realized the potential for the analgesic properties of nitrous oxide, and met with Colton about conducting trials.
The following day, Wells conducted a trial on himself by inhaling nitrous oxide and having John Riggs extract a tooth. Upon a successful trial where he did not feel any pain, Wells went on to use nitrous oxide on at least 12 other patients in his office. In 1844, Hartford did not have a hospital, so Wells sought to demonstrate his new findings in either Boston or New York. He chose to go to Boston in January 1845 where he previously studied dentistry, and also knew William Morton, a former student and associate. Wells and Morton's practice was dissolved in October 1844, but they remained on friendly terms. Morton was enrolled in Harvard Medical School at the time and agreed to help Wells introduce his ideas, although Morton was skeptical about the use of nitrous oxide.
He gave a demonstration to medical students at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston on January 20, 1845. However, the gas was improperly administered and the patient cried out in pain. The patient later admitted that although he cried out in pain, he remembered no pain and did not know when the tooth was extracted. The audience of students in the surgical theatre jeered "humbug". After the embarrassment from his failed demonstration, Wells immediately returned home to Hartford the next day. Shortly after, he became ill and his dental practice became sporadic.
On February 5, 1845, Wells advertised his home for rent. On April 7, 1845, Wells advertised in the Hartford Courant that he was going to dissolve his dental practice, and referred all his patients to Riggs, the man who had extracted his tooth.
In October 1846, Morton gave a successful demonstration of ether anesthesia in Boston. Following Morton's demonstration, Wells published a letter accounting his successful trials in 1844 in an attempt to claim the discovery of anesthesia. His efforts in establishing his claim were mostly unsuccessful.
Despite his advertisement for dissolving his practice in April 1845, Wells sporadically continued his practice, with his last daybook entry being on November 5, 1845.
Between 1836 and 1847, Wells closed his office nine times and relocated six different times. His reasons for closing his office were due to ill health, however his physician could not find any physical cause to his nonspecific somatic complaints. His reoccurring illness was first mentioned in a letter to his sister Mary Wells Cole in April 1837. Wells also became ill shortly after marrying his wife Elizabeth Wales in 1838 and having his only son Charles Thomas Wells. During winter months, Wells would not write letters to any family or friends, except for his published letter in 1846 after Morton's ether demonstration.
After definitively ending his dental practice in late 1845, Wells became a salesman of shower baths which he received a patent for on November 4, 1846. Wells also planned to sail to Paris to purchase paintings to resell in the United States. He traveled to Paris in early 1847, where he petitioned the Academie Royale de Medicine and the Parisian Medical Society for recognition in the discovery of anesthesia.
Upon returning to the United States, Wells moved to New York City in pursuit of his own interests in January 1848, leaving his wife and young son behind in Hartford. While in New York City, Wells lived alone at 120 Chambers St in Lower Manhattan. He began self-experimenting with ether and chloroform, in which he became addicted to the latter. At that time the effects of sniffing chloroform and ether were not known.
On his 33rd birthday, January 21, 1848, 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. On January 24, 1848, Wells then committed suicide in his cell, slitting his left femoral artery 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.
Twelve days before his death, the Parisian Medical Society had voted and honored him as the first to discover and perform surgical operations without pain. In addition, he was elected an honorary member and awarded an honorary MD degree. However, Wells died unaware of these decisions. Wells first voiced his concern for minimizing his patient's pain during dental procedures in 1841. He was known for caring about his patient's comfort. During his time as a dentist, Wells advocated for regular check ups for dental hygiene, and also began the practice of pediatric dentistry in order to start dental care early.
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).
- Martin, Ramon F. (September 27, 2015). "An Examination of Horace Wells' Life as a Manifestation of Major Depressive and Seasonal Affective Disorders". Journal of Anesthia History. 2 (1): 24.
- Jacobsohn, P.H. (1995). "Horace Wells: discoverer of anesthesia". Anesthesia Progress. 42 (3–4): 73–75.
- Gordon, Sarah H. (February 2000). "Wells, Horace". American National Biography Online.
- Finder, S.G. (1995). "Lessons from history: Horace Wells and the moral features of clinical contexts". Anesthesia Progress. 42 (1): 3–4.
- Haridas, Rajesh (November 2013). "Horace Wells' Demonstration of Nitrous Oxide in Boston". Anesthesiology. 119 (5). doi:10.1097/aln.0b013e3182a771ea.
- Aljohani, Sara (September 2015). "Horace Wells and His House on 120 Chambers St in New York Ciity". Journal of Anesthesia History. 2: 28–29. doi:10.1016/j.janh.2015.09.006.
- 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.
- "Horace Wells". nndb.com. Retrieved 6 April 2017.
- 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.
- Downs, Michael (2018). The Strange and True Tale of Horace Wells, Surgeon Dentist: A Novel - Historical Fiction. Acre Books. ISBN 9781946724045.