The illustrations of the inhaler that were contained in the letter had not been previously described.  From the image, “v” indicates valves.
The illustrations of the inhaler that were contained in the letter had not been previously described. From the image, “v” indicates valves.

Many may feel that history does not change.  Dr. Rajesh P. Haridas, Victoria, Australia, found a letter, dated 1 December 1846, written by Charles Thomas Jackson, M.D., to Josiah Dwight Whitney. This letter contains a description and two illustrations of a Morton ether inhaler.  Contents of the letter and a discussion of the letter’s importance in terms of the Morton-Jackson controversy are contained in the article “Correspondence by Charles T. Jackson Containing the Earliest Known Illustrations of a Morton Ether Inhaler” (coauthored by Drs. Haridas and George S. Bause) published in this month’s edition of Anesthesia & Analgesia.

One portion of the letter describes general anesthesia as we know it today: “It is that when a person is made to inhale very freely the Vapour of pure Sulphuric Ether, mixed with atmospheric air, he becomes insensible to pain, and may submit to any surgical operation without any suffering or nervous shock to the System.”  Jackson also notes that this discovery was communicated first to Mr. William Thomas Green Morton, a dentist, and then to the surgeon Dr. Warren.  Whitney was a geologist, after whom Mt. Whitney in California, the highest peak in the 48 contiguous states, and the Whitney glacier in California were named.

Earlier that year, Morton and Jackson, his former mentor, filed a patent on the inhaler.  The illustrations of the inhaler, contained in the letter, had not otherwise been described, save for an image in a subsequent catalog dated March 1847.  At the time of the patent application, Jackson assigned his rights to Morton and would receive 10% of the profit from sales.  In the letter, Jackson claims to have discovered ether anesthesia and instructed Morton to conduct trials.  Jackson and Morton feuded over the money.  Neither got anything from the patent, though their feud probably helped to spread the word about ether’s ability to produce anesthesia.   Furthermore, Dr. Crawford Long had used ether as an anesthetic to remove a tumor from a patient’s neck four years earlier (on March 30, 1842).

Dr. Douglas R. Bacon, Department of Anesthesiology, Wayne State University School of Medicine, Detroit, Michigan, writes in his accompanying editorial titled “History Is,” “Historians like Dr. Haridas spent hours, days, weeks, and even years in musty archives, seeking fragments of knowledge from scraps of paper. Dr. Haridas has literally touched our past. In the process, he ensures our future.”