William Thomas Green Morton, an American dentist, born in Charlton, Mass., Aug. 9, 1819, died in New York, July 15, 1868. In 1840 he began the study of dentistry in Baltimore, and 18 months afterward settled in Boston. Among improvements introduced by him was a new kind of solder by which false teeth are fastened to gold plates, preventing galvanic action. In his search for means of removing the roots of old teeth without pain, he tried stimulants, even to intoxication, opium, and magnetism, but in vain. While attending lectures at the medical college in Boston in 1844, for the purpose of increasing his knowledge with reference to this object, he learned that sulphuric ether could be inhaled in small quantities without danger; and after experimenting on himself, and becoming satisfied of its safety, he administered it to a man on Sept. 30,1846, producing unconsciousness, during which a firmly rooted bicuspid tooth was painlessly extracted. After numerous other successful experiments, he communicated their result to Dr. J. C. Warren, and at his request administered the ether on Oct. 16, 1846, in the Massachusetts general hospital, to a man from whose jaw was removed a vascular tumor, the patient remaining unconscious during the operation.
From this dates the introduction into general surgery of the discovery of ethereal anaesthesia, Like other great discoveries, it met with bitter professional opposition. In order to protect himself against such opposition he obtained a patent for it, under the name of "letheon," in November, 1846, in the United States, and in the following month in England, offering, however, free rights to all charitable institutions in all parts of the country. Notwithstanding his generous offers, government appropriated his discovery to its use without compensation. Several claimants for the honor of the discovery soon appeared, among whom was Dr. C. T. Jackson; and when the French academy examined the testimony, some of the members at first recognized him as the discoverer; but the committee of the academy awarded the Mon-tyon prize of 5,000 francs to be equally divided between him and Dr. Morton. The latter declined to receive this joint award, protested against the decision of the academy, and in 1852 received the large gold medal, the Mon-tyon prize in medicine and surgery. He had to contend with many troubles; his business was broken up, and his house was attached by the sheriff for debt; but his indomitable will and the encouragement of friends enabled him to maintain his claims.
He presented his first memorial for compensation to congress in December, 1846, but the appointed committee did not report. Strengthened by the testimonial of the trustees of the Massachusetts general hospital in 1848, which conceded to him the discovery of the power and safety of ether in producing anaesthesia, he made a second application to congress in January, 1849; a committee composed of physicians reported that he was entitled to the merit of the discovery, but they did not recommend any pecuniary remuneration. In December, 1851, he made a third appeal to congress, and his memorial was referred to a select committee; the report of the majority awarded the honor of the discovery to him, and in April, 1852, a bill was reported appropriating $100,000 as a national testimonial, on condition that he should surrender his patent to the government. This bill was not acted upon directly, but having been brought before the senate as an amendment to the army appropriation bill, it was defeated. In 1853 an amendment to the appropriation bill was offered, granting $100,000 to the discoverer of practical ana'sthesia; after a warm debate it passed the senate, 26 to 23, but failed in the house. In 1854 a similar bill passed the senate by 24 to 13, but was lost in the house.
In the same year Morton attempted to obtain from the president a recognition of the validity of his patent, supported by the recommendation of 150 members of congress that the right to use his discovery be purchased for the public service, or that the government respect its own patent and discontinue its use; after two years' delay the president informed him that whenever it was decided in the courts that the government had violated his patent, it would pay. At this defeat his creditors became importunate, and reduced him to utter poverty; but in the winter of 1856-'7 a plan for a national testimonial was instituted in Boston, and an appeal was published signed by many of the principal physicians and merchants, in which they asserted an almost universal concurrence of the professional and other citizens of Boston in assigning the merit of the discovery to Dr. Morton. In 1858 a similar appeal was made in New York, signed by the principal medical men of that city, and in 1860 also in Philadelphia. In 1858 he instituted a suit against a marine hospital surgeon for infringing his patent, as suggested by the president, which was decided in his favor in the United States circuit court.
In the last years of his life he was engaged in agricultural pursuits, especially in the importation and raising of fine cattle at his farm in Wellesley, Mass. His death was caused by the excitement occasioned by an article attempting to deprive him of the honor of being the discoverer of anaesthesia: this attack brought on a fatal congestion and syncope. A monument in Mt. Auburn was erected by citizens of Boston, with the following inscription, written by Dr. Jacob Bigelow: "Win. T. G. Morton, inventor and revealer of anaesthetic inhalation; by whom pain in surgery was averted and annulled; before whom, in all time, surgery was agony; since whom science has control of pain." The Montyon prize medal, his orders received from Russia and Sweden, and the silver box pre-sented in Boston, are deposited in the rooms of the Massachusetts historical society, Boston. (See AnAesthetics, Jackson, Charles Thomas, and Wells, Horace.) - See "Trials of a Public Benefactor," by Dr. Nathan P. Rice (New York, 1859).