Just One Whiff

The hall in Hartford, Connecticut, was packed to overflowing. In the audience sat two friends – Samuel Cooley and Horace Wells, a dentist. Both young men were in for a surprise. Cooley didn’t suspect that he was about to be the main source of entertainment. Wells didn’t realize that he was about to change medical history.

When the speaker called for volunteers to participate in an experiment, Cooley strutted to the front of the audience. Would he sniff a little gas from a container to demonstrate its effects to the others? Not one to back down from a challenge, Cooley agreed.

The gas was nitrous oxide. Nitrous oxide had recently been discovered, and its unusual effects were a source of fun at gatherings like this. A good sniff of the gas usually turned unsuspecting subjects into giggling, laughing fools, much to the amusement of those in the audience. The effect led many to call nitrous oxide by another name – laughing gas.

Cooley inhaled deeply and broke into hysterical laughter. Then, as sometimes happened with nitrous oxide, Cooley’s mood changed. He became violent. He scuffled with others and tried to pick fights with them. He tripped, fell heavily, and struggled to get up again. Momentarily stunned, he wandered back to his seat beside Wells.

Other volunteers were called forward and the demonstration continued. Someone glanced back at Cooley and noticed a pool of blood under his seat. The fall had gashed Cooley’s leg and he was bleeding profusely. When informed of the injury, Cooley was surprised. He’d felt no pain at all.

Being a dentist, Wells realized the importance of this event. If nitrous oxide dulled a person’s senses, perhaps it would kill pain during surgery. Wells wasted no time trying to prove his theory. A decaying molar caused him pain, so he gathered a few witnesses and asked a colleague to remove it. Before the dentist went to work, Wells inhaled nitrous oxide and quickly lost consciousness. While he was out, his friend extracted the tooth. Just as he predicted, Wells felt no pain at all.

Encouraged by his own experience, Wells arranged a bigger demonstration, this time in front of doctors and dentists at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. He gave a willing patient a dose of nitrous oxide, then began removing one of the patient’s teeth. To Wells’ surprise, the patient screamed and howled in pain. In his nervousness, Wells had started the procedure before the gas had taken hold. The spectators booed and

hissed, forcing Wells to leave in disgrace, his reputation ruined. Wells soon gave up his dental practice, but his demonstrations aroused the interest of others who continued to experiment with nitrous oxide and other painkillers. Today, thanks to Wells and these medical pioneers going to the dentist is no longer the painful experience it once was.

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