All Horace Wells ever wanted was to relieve the pain of his dental patients. He probably should have quite while he was ahead.
Born in 1815, he attended schools in Hampshire and Massachusetts before deciding to become a dentist. Since there were no formal dental schools at the time, Wells received his training by serving an apprenticeship with several practicing dentists in Boston. After a brief period as a traveling dentist, he established a permanent practice in Hartford, Connecticut in 1836. By 1838, Wells was a well-known dentist in the community and had even made a name for himself among other dentists with his An Essay on Teeth, Comprising a Brief Description of Their Formation, Disease, and Proper Treatment. Although his practice was successful, Wells was frequently distressed by the pain that his patients experienced. Early nineteenth-century dentistry was frequently agonizing for patients since there was no reliable method of anesthesia available. Due to the medical risks involved, opium (and, later morphine) could not be safely administered for tooth extraction and alcohol had its own drawbacks. Looking into other methods, Wells stumbled onto a possible solution while attending a very unusual lecture.
When nitrous oxide was first discovered by Joseph Priestley in 1772, its properties weren't immediately obvious. First named "nitrous air" by Priestley, the colourless, non-flammable gas had a sweet odour and taste. In his later research, Humphrey Davy discovered that the gas had anesthetic properties (ironically enough, he had a wisdom tooth removed and found that nitrous oxide relieved the pain). Although Davy commented on nitrous oxide's potential role in surgery in a 1799 book, nothing really came of it at first. Still, the euphoric feeling experienced after inhaling nitrous oxide quickly earned it the nickname of "laughing gas". For the next few decades, nitrous oxide was popular for the recreational high it brought and "laughing gas" parties became popular, first with British aristocrats and gradually spreading to both sides of the Atlantic. According to the 1839 flier advertising a typical party, "The gas will be administered only to gentlemen of the first respectability. The object is to make the entertainent in every respect a genteel affair" (although you have to wonder how "genteel" the guests became after too much nitrous oxide intoxication). More serious lecturers even provided nitrous oxide cannisters in lecture halls so the audience could sample its effects themselves.
It was at an 1844 lecture by Professor G. Q. Colton where Wells tried laughing gas for the first time and realized that it could be useful for tooth extraction. After seeing another audience member injuring himself and showing no pain while under the influence, Wells decided to experiment further. He arranged a demonstration with Colton on the following day in which Wells had his own tooth extracted using nitrous oxide. Wells was excited by the success of the experiment and later commented that, "I did not feel it so much as the prick of a pin. A new era in tooth pulling. It is the greatest discovery ever made". Unfortunately, a followup demonstration that he had arranged for other Boston dentists and medical students was unsuccessful because he accidentally turned off the nitrous oxide too soon. The patient sat up and screamed and the audience walked out after declaring Wells' discovery to be a hoax. Despite this setback, Wells continued his experiments and successfully used nitrous oxide with his own patients.
In the meantime, other developments were happening in Europe. The analgesic properties of chloroform and ether had long been known but it was only during the 1840s that physicians and dentists began using them for surgical operations. After Wells' former partner, William T.G. Morton, first used ether for tooth extraction at Massachusetts General Hospital in 1846, newspapers in Boston widely praised him for his medical discovery. Painless surgery had suddenly became popular (Queen Victoria helped the process along in 1848 by asking for chloroform during the birth of her seventh child) and a battle quickly developed over who should should have the credit for inventing anesthesia (the term was coined by Oliver Wendell Holmes in that same year). Although Horace Wells tried to have his own work recognized, he faced stiff opposition from the Boston medical community (they regarded Morton as one of their own and wanted Boston to be recognized as the birthplace of anesthesia). It was as much a matter of money as prestige since Morton also tried to patent his anesthetic which would have made him a wealthy man.
With an aggressive campaign to have his early experiments in nitrous oxide recognized, Wells established his place in medical history after traveling to France and presenting his claim to the French Academy of Medicine. Although Wells' pioneering work was eventually recognized, his life quickly went downhill after his successful return from France in 1847. Since chloroform provided a safe alternative to ether, Wells began his own experiments which involved self-administering the drug in large dosages. The toxic effects of chloroform exposure were not well understood at the time and Wells became increasingly deranged. According to his obituary, Wells was approached by a patient who had apparently asked him for some "vitriolic acid" to help him "pay back a loose female, who injured his dress". He and the patient prepared a spray bottle of acid and squirted it on the woman in question. When the patient suggested "continuing the sport" with other women, Wells refused and went home. Unfortunately, Wells continued inhaling large doses of chloroform over the next few nights. According to the confession that he left behind,
"I lost all consciousness before I removed the inhaler from my mouth. How long it remained there, I do not know, but on coming out of the stupor, I was exhilarated beyond measure, exceeding any thing I had ever before experienced, and seeing the phial of acid, I seized it and rushed into the street and threw it at two females, I may have thrust it at others but I have no recollection farther than this. The excitement did not leave me for some time after my arrest."
Wells made no attempt at defending himself and was primarily worried about what would happen to his wife and child. Confined to a small cell in New York's notorious Tombs jail, Wells had somehow managed to smuggle in a razor and, after anaesthetizing himself with a dose of chloroform that he had poured into a handkerchief, he cut the femoral artery on his left thigh. When his body was finally found on January 24, there was a pool of blood in the floor of the cell as well as several sheets of paper on which he had written his confession as well as a final note to his wife. In that note, he explained his suicide on the grounds that he was fast "becoming a deranged man or I would desist from this act. I can't live and keep my reason and, on this account, God will forgive my deed. I can say no more". The note also gave instructions for his burial and disposal of his personal effects.
Although Horace Wells' final letter requested that he be buried in secret, he was interred at Cedar Hill Cemetery in Hartford Connecticut. William Morton and the Boston medical community played on the bizarre circumstances of Wells' death to reinforce Morton's claim as being the inventor of anaesthesia. It would take many years, and vigorous lobbying by Wells' supporters, before the American Dental Association and the American Medical Association formally recognized Horace Wells as a pioneer. Monuments to Wells have been raised in Paris and in Hartford, Connecticut. Nitrous oxide continues to be used as an anesthetic and, ironically in Wells' case, it has been successfully used in treating certain types of addiction including alcohol withdrawal.
And yes, laughing gas parties are still around (perhaps too much so).