Wednesday, April 23, 2008

A monument to a drug

When I was in Cambridge MA earlier this month for the Philosophy of Education Society annual meeting, I took an afternoon and went on a field trip to the Back Bay area of Boston. This is one of my favorite areas of Boston, and it brings back some memories for me from my days living in Boston as a (very) young law student and then law school dropout. There are a lot of cool things in Back Bay, including the Boston Public Library, Copley Square, lots of fancy shops and galleries, the Prudential Building, and the Hancock Building(s). Also in Back Bay, or rather between Back Bay and Beacon Hill, is the Boston Public Garden, the oldest Public Garden in the United States (dating from 1837).

The Boston Public Garden is very cool, especially in the summer when the flowers are in bloom and the swan boats are out in the lagoon. But even in early April, especially on the warmish day I was there, it is very lively, with people walking dogs, sitting on benches, playing with children, or just walking through.

There are a lot of special monuments and other features in the Garden, as one would expect in such an old, public place. Off in the Southwest corner of the Garden is an extremely odd item, one that has consistently amused me in the 25 years I've been returning to Boston. It is, to my knowledge, the only monument to a drug found in a public space in the United States.

The monument is quite elaborate, and from a distance there is no way you would know what it's a monument to.

On closer inspection, however, and reading the inscription, one sees that the monument, dedicated in 1869, is "To commemorate that the inhaling of ether causes insensibility to pain at the Mass. General Hospital in Boston" in October of 1846.

On October 16 of that year, dentist Thomas G. Morton electrified an audience of surgeons and medical students in the operating theater of Massachusetts General Hospital when he put a printer, Gilbert Abbot, to sleep. The attending surgeon then removed a tumor from the sleeping patient's neck: no thrashing, no screams, no restraint by assistants. The theater broke into cheers.

When I saw the monument earlier this month, it looked much better than it did when i first encountered it back in the mid-1980s. Turns out the monument has just been through a nearly 20-year rehabilitation effort, described in an article in the Boston Globe from September of 2006:

Dr. Rafael Ortega, an anesthesiologist and associate professor at Boston Medical Center, has just had a book published under the title: "Written in Stone: An illustrated history of the Ether Monument."

"Most people don't know there is an Ether Monument," said Ortega. "For variety of reasons, even many physicians aren't aware that the monument exists."

The 40-foot tower is topped by a sculpture representing the parable of the Good Samaritan in the Gospel of Luke. An older man holds a younger man who has been overcome by an illness -- an allegory of mercy and good will, Ortega said.

The figures rest on marble columns atop a square pedestal adorned with four marble reliefs. One of the panels represents the triumph of science with a woman sitting atop of throne of test tubes and other medical equipment. Two of the other carvings show the use of ether during the Civil War. The fourth frieze depicts the angel of mercy descending to a man stricken with disease.

"The monument itself sort of memorializes a major step forward in modern healthcare," said Dr. Jonathan Griswold, a pediatric anesthesiologist at Tufts New England Medical Center. "People were exceedingly afraid of surgery, and rightfully so. Most limbs were removed with people awake. Most people who had surgery had to go through excruciating pain."

Then on Oct. 16, 1846, Dr. John Collins Warren and a dentist named Thomas A. Morton administered ether to a 20-year-old patient at Massachusetts General Hospital before painlessly removing a tumor from his neck. The doctors performed the procedure before an audience of other doctors and word quickly spread in medical journals.

Where patients once had to be physically held down for surgery, the sick could now sit still and allow doctors to work. Ether became critical on the battlefields of the Civil War and in hospitals across the globe.

The monument's rehabilitation was paid for by $220,000 from the city and money from private donors including the Solomon Fund and the Friends of the Public Garden. It involved the installation of a new lighting system that officials hope will increase public consciousness of the sculpture and discourage vandalism. Organizers are trying to establish an endowment to fund future maintenance of the memorial.

"It's a beautiful sculpture in and of itself," said Pollak, the park's commissioner. "I think learning about the interpretation of it and making the public aware of its importance is crucial."

Turns out, there is some controversy concerning the event that was actually commemorated by the monument, with a competing claim to having discovered the anesthesia.

Morton hadn't invented ether. The volatile liquid was discovered in the thirteenth century-maybe earlier-and by Victorian times, many middle-class party-goers in Europe and America used the drug recreationally at so-called "ether frolics." Sometimes the giggling, red-eyed revelers were so insensible they struck themselves on tables, chairs, or the floor-opening bloody wounds that went unnoticed until much later. Morton was the first to suggest ether's surgical use, or so he claimed. Shortly after Morton's demonstration at Mass General, another Boston dentist, Charles T. Jackson, claimed that Morton had stolen his discovery. Jackson was so open and persistent in his rancor towards Morton that the public joined the battle on both sides. Eventually, opinion decided in favor of Morton, but as late as 1882 Mark Twain sided with Jackson, proclaiming that the Ether Monument "is made of hardy material, but the lie it tells will outlast it a million years.

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