Horace Wells, born 1815, gave patients a fit of giggles when he became the first to use nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, as an anesthetic.
Horace Wells received his early education in Walpole, New Hampshire before studying dentistry in Boston. After receiving his degree in dentistry, Wells began his dentistry practice in Hartford, CT.
In 1844, Wells attended a stage show hosted by Garder Colton, a former medical school student, who was traveling the country doing nitrous oxide demonstrations. Wells observed that one of the individuals to whom the gas had been administered injured himself but did not notice until the effects of the nitrous oxide wore off. Wells concluded that nitrous oxide might be useful in dental surgeries and tested his theory on several patients and himself. His observations suggested that these extractions and surgeries were not accompanied by pain.
Wells hosted a demonstration show to reveal his findings before a larger audience. In the Hartford Courant (9th Dec. 9, 1846), Wells describes what occurs:
“A large number of students, with several physicians, met to see the operation performed – one of their number to be the patient. Unfortunately for the experiment, the gas bag was by mistake withdrawn much too soon, and he was but partially under its influence when the tooth was extracted. He testified that he experienced some pain, but not as much as usually attends the operation. As there was no other patient present, that the experiment might be repeated, and as several expressed their opinion that it was a humbug affair (which in fact was all the thanks I got for this gratuitous service) I accordingly left the next morning for home.”
The public humiliation of this event and other professional disappointments led to Wells giving up his dental practice and committing suicide.
In 1864, the American Dental Association passed a resolution stating “that to Horace Wells, of Hartford, Connecticut belongs the credit and honor of the introduction of anesthesia in the U.S.A.” In May of 1870, the American Medical Association passed a resolution “that the honor of the discovery of practical anesthesia is due to the late Horace Wells of Connecticut.”