The Anniversary of Laughing Gas

Laughing Gas

And What Happened to the “Inventor of Anesthesia”

This month the American Dental Association celebrated the 174th year of anesthesia in dentistry. The first anesthetic specifically used for a dental procedure was nitrous oxide, commonly called “laughing gas.” On December 11th, 1844, Dr. Horace Wells, a dentist in Hartford, Connecticut, had a wisdom tooth removed by another dentist, Dr. John M. Riggs, while under the influence of nitrous oxide. The procedure was a success and Wells made arrangements for a public demonstration in the larger city of Boston.

The First Public Demonstration

Sadly, the demonstration by Wells on a medical student with a bad tooth did not go well. Although one report stated the patient “manifested” no significant pain, most audience members thought otherwise, laughing and hissing at the outcome. As explained by another witness with a positive attitude, the student “halloed somewhat during the operation, but on his return to consciousness, said he felt no pain whatever.” Personally, Wells thought that he had not administered enough laughing gas, and that was why the patient reacted as he did.

The Outcome for Wells

For the Wells, the humiliation of his failed demonstration began a downward spiral that eventually ended with his death by suicide. Oddly enough, he caused his own death while under the effects of chloroform, another anesthetic, using the drug to help him cut his own femoral artery! It is unfortunate that Wells was unaware at the time that the Parisian Medical Society in France had made him an honorary member, declaring him the “inventor of anesthesia.” As researcher Rajesh Haridas stated in the journal Anesthesiology, “Wells’ exhilaration in his discovery lasted approximately 6 weeks, and the next 3 years were characterized by numerous misfortunes and failures that ended with his untimely death.”

Dental Anesthesia Today

Shortly after the initial nitrous oxide demonstration, other anesthetics were also successfully used, such as ether and chloroform. Of these three, only laughing gas stood the test of time, and is still available in modern dental practices. Ether is seldom used in advanced dentistry due to its flammability and chloroform is avoided wherever possible for human procedures due to its potential toxicity in large doses.

If you want to explore your options for anesthesia during dental procedures, the Sacramento Dentistry Group is here to help. We provide both the latest methods, including sleep dentistry, and the time-tested nitrous oxide, based on your preference and the type of procedure. For more information, contact us online or via telephone at 916-538-6900.

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