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Sites and Artifacts Related to Horace Wells in Hartford, Connecticut

Aponte-Feliciano, Antonio MD*; Desai, Sukumar P. MD; Desai, Manisha S. MD*

doi: 10.1213/ANE.0b013e318292f30a
General Articles: Special Article
Free
CME

Horace Wells, a contender for recognition as the discoverer of anesthesia, is celebrated in the town where he conducted most of his work, Hartford, CT. His only descendant was his son, Charles Thomas Wells (1839–1909), an influential and successful business executive at Aetna Insurance Company. He was a man of considerable influence, and he worked tirelessly with city officials and the Connecticut Dental Association in celebrating the 50th anniversary of his father’s contribution to medicine. This discovery is unique because events and individuals in 1 country, the United States, contributed entirely to the birth of a medical specialty. Sites in Jefferson, GA; Hartford, CT; and Boston, MA and their environs celebrate this most precious contribution to modern medicine, especially since the introduction of safe anesthesia permitted the development of surgical specialties and obstetrics. We trace the history and relationship between Horace Wells and several sites and artifacts in Hartford, CT. These sites span the most important, distinctive, and attractive parts of the city: Bushnell Park, Trinity College, Cedar Hill Cemetery, the Athenaeum, and the Connecticut Historical Society.

Published ahead of print April 25, 2013.

From the *Department of Anesthesiology, University of Massachusetts Medical School, UMass Memorial Health Care, Worcester; and Department of Anaesthesia, Harvard Medical School, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, Massachusetts.

Accepted for publication February 20, 2013.

Published ahead of print April 25, 2013.

Funding: This work was supported by intramural funding.

The authors declare no conflicts of interest.

Reprints will not be available from the authors.

Address correspondence to Sukumar P. Desai, MD, Department of Anesthesiology, Perioperative and Pain Medicine, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, 75 Francis St., Boston, MA 02115. Address e-mail to sdesai@partners.org.

Horace Wells conducted most of his work related to the analgesic and anesthetic effects of nitrous oxide in Hartford, CT. Wells was born and raised in Hartford, VT, studied dentistry in Boston, and established his practice in Hartford, CT. Several contenders have claimed credit for the discovery of anesthesia, including Crawford Williamson Long (1815–1878), Charles Thomas Jackson (1805–1880), William Thomas Green Morton (1819–1868), but no one denies that Wells was the first individual to document that nitrous oxide was effective in alleviating pain during dental procedures.1–8 His life took a tragic downward spiral after an unconvincing demonstration of nitrous oxide’s anesthetic properties at Massachusetts General Hospital in January 1845. Within 3 years, having failed to obtain the recognition he sought, Wells committed suicide in a New York prison after being arrested for splashing acid on prostitutes, although he might have been under the effect of drugs during this attack, and no motive was proposed.9–11

The City of Hartford, CT is proud of Horace Wells’ accomplishments, and history enthusiasts can visit and view many sites and artifacts. Charles Thomas Wells (1839–1909) was the sole descendant of Horace and Elizabeth Wells. He was a bachelor and a successful executive at Aetna Insurance Company. A man of significant wealth and influence, he was also a prominent member of Reverend Dr. George L. Walker’s Church.12 Gardner Quincy Colton (1814–1898) was present during Wells’ discovery of the anesthetic properties of nitrous oxide. He remarked decades later that other agents would not have been investigated had it not been for Wells’ discovery.13 The City of Hartford, the Connecticut Dental Association, and Charles T. Wells joined forces to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Horace Wells’ achievements. These efforts were followed by those of others, such as the Horace Wells Club in promoting awareness of the role played by Hartford dentist Horace Wells in discovering the anesthetic properties of nitrous oxide. As a result, the city offers history enthusiasts a bronze statue in Bushnell Park, a Tiffany stained glass window in The First Church of Christ in Hartford, a portrait at Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, a plaque at the site of his dental office, a pew in the Chapel at Trinity College, his grave in Cedar Hill Cemetery, and various original personal paraphernalia including a death mask at the Connecticut Historical Society.

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HORACE WELLS’ STATUE IN BUSHNELL PARK

Horace Bushnell (1802–1876) was born in Bantam, CT on April 14, 1802. He was appointed Reverend of the North Congregational Church in 1833 after graduating from the School of Theology at Yale University.14–17 In October 1853, Bushnell presented to the Hartford City Council the idea of creating “a public park, for the rich and poor to meet and share.”18,19 His proposal received unanimous support in the City Council in November 1853, which approved expenditure of $105,000 in public funds to buy the land that was to become Bushnell Park. Voters in the city approved this expenditure on January 5, 1854, by a vote of 1687 to 683, making it the first municipal park in the nation to be conceived, built, and paid for by citizens through a popular vote.18,19 Bushnell asked his lifelong friend, the renowned landscape architect from Hartford, Frederick Law Olmsted (1822–1903),20,21 to design a suitable park. Olmsted was designing New York’s Central Park at that time and recommended that Jacob Weidenmann (1829–1893), a Swiss landscape architect, be assigned to work on the design.22 In 1874, the town commissioned Truman Howe Bartlett (1835–1921) and his team to create a bronze statue of Horace Wells to honor the man who proposed that anesthesia will be as free as air (Fig. 1).18,23,24 Many, including Mark Twain, had proposed that Wells’ achievements ought to be recognized by the City of Hartford. In 1873, a newspaper article suggested that a statue of Wells be erected in Central Park.25 Another newspaper article stated reasons why the statue should be erected in Hartford, and described the conviction of city and state officials to carry out such action.26 The statue was erected in 1875 in the Park, and it is located near a pond in the northeast corner. An inscription on the statue reads: Horace Wells, The discoverer of Anaesthesia, 1844. Wells is depicted in a collared shirt, cravat, stock, and waistcoat with a drape cloak, and he is dressed as an honorable man who is proud of his discovery. His left leg is bent and placed slightly forward, while most of his body rests on the right leg. Bartlett elegantly shows how Wells advanced painless dental procedures, thanks to his discovery. Next to his right foot is his tool box, his walking cane (a symbol of power), a book entitled Anaesthesia (a symbol of his gift to the world), and a scroll (a symbol of knowledge) that reads I was desirous that it should be as free as air.27 Truman Howe Bartlett used Horace Wells’ original death mask to create a most authentic representation of his face. Bartlett donated the plaster casting of Wells’ death mask to the Boston Medical Library in 1887.28

Figure 1

Figure 1

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TIFFANY STAINED GLASS WINDOW IN THE FIRST CHURCH OF CHRIST IN HARTFORD

The First Church of Christ in Hartford was organized in 1632, very early in the settlement of New England. One year later, Thomas Hooker (1586–1647), founder of the city of Hartford, became its first minister, and the church was officially founded in 1636.29–32 In 1903, more than half a century after Horace Wells’ death, his son Charles Thomas Wells commissioned Louis C. Tiffany (1848–1933)33,34 to design a stained glass window in memory of his parents (Fig. 2).35 The name Tiffany is associated with master craftsmanship, and he was recognized as one of the best glass artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He supervised the creation of this beautiful and breathtaking glass window, where color gives life to the characters represented. The design was named Righteousness and Peace. The top of the glass reads: Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other. It is composed of a central figure sitting in the mercy seat with a crown, a symbol of dignity, honor, and victory over pain. There are flames on each side of the seat, symbolizing purification, renewal of energy, power, strength, and transformation. The arch above and behind the seat is a symbol of victory, and allegorically heralds a new era, the era of triumph over pain.27,36 A shield held in his left arm likely represents the protection from surgical pain that Wells’ achievement offers suffering mankind, especially since nitrous oxide has withstood the test of time and outlasted every other anesthetic agent. A female figure on the left of Mercy is Truth, kneeling faithfully in memory, while also possibly protected by the shield. Her hands hold a dove, a symbol of peace, innocence, and gentleness.27,36 The bottom of the beautiful window carries an inscription: Neither shall there be any more pain, for the former things are passed away. A final tribute reads: In Memoriam, Horace Wells, The Discoverer of Anesthesia, And His Wife, Elizabeth Wales Wells.

Figure 2

Figure 2

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HORACE WELLS’ PORTRAIT BY FLAGG

The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art was founded by Daniel Wadsworth (1771–1848) in 1842, and is the oldest public art museum in the United States.29,37 Its Gothic Revival building opened in 1844 and was designed by eminent architects Ithiel Town (1784–1844) and Alexander Jackson Davis (1803–1892).29,37–41 A famous Connecticut painter and friend to the Wells family, Charles Noel Flagg (1848–1916), painted a life-size portrait of Horace Wells and presented it to the Wadsworth Athenaeum in 1899 (Fig. 3).5 An accompanying letter to Reverend Francis Goodwin, President of the Athenaeum, described the artist’s motivation in recognizing one of the most important discoveries in dentistry and medicine, an event that led to the development of surgery.42 The medium for the impressive 57 by 43 inch rendering is oil on canvas, and an inscription in the left upper corner reminds us thus: Horace Wells discoverer of Anesthesia, Anno 1844. The artist’s signature appears in the lower right corner, and the portrait shows Horace Wells standing erect with his right hand resting on a desk with books, his left thumb on his dress coat and resting on his left abdomen. The face bears remarkable resemblance to a daguerreotype prepared by Wells himself, and also to the facial characteristics evident in the death mask of Horace Wells prepared by his lifelong friend John Mankey Riggs (1810–1885).43

Figure 3

Figure 3

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PLAQUE AT HORACE WELLS’ OLD OFFICE SITE

In 1894, during celebration of the 50th anniversary of Horace Wells’ discovery, a group of Hartford area dentists commissioned Enoch S. Woods to carve a bronze tablet in Wells’ memory. This plaque was placed on the site where Horace’s dental office was located (Fig. 4). In the upper half is a likeness of Horace Wells wearing a collared shirt, a knotted cravat, and encompassed within a circle, a traditional symbol of eternity and infinity.27,36 A laurel wreath rests at the bottom of the circle, evoking a message of triumph and victory.27,36 The wreath is tied by a ribbon which is encrypted with the following words: “This tablet commemorating the 50thAnniversary is placed by 250 American dentists.” The primary inscription reads: To the memory of HORACE WELLS, dentist, who upon this spot, December 11, 1844, submitted to a surgical operation, discovered, demonstrated and proclaimed the blessings of anaesthesia. The structure that housed his office is long gone, and a modern high-rise office building has replaced it, but a special place has been found in the front of this structure, at street level, clearly visible to pedestrians and traffic.

Figure 4

Figure 4

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PEW IN TRINITY COLLEGE CHAPEL

Washington College was founded in 1823 as the first Episcopalian College in New England. It was renamed Trinity College in 1845.44,45 In 1872 original property was sold to give way to the construction of the state capitol, and the college moved to its current location in 1878.44,45 The move allowed it to expand its facilities and British architect William Burges designed the new structure in the Gothic Revival style.44 Of similar design, located on a hill and visible from afar is its majestic chapel. The Horace Wells Club was formed in 1894 to keep alive the memory of the Hartford dentist who discovered pain-relieving properties of nitrous oxide.46 Its membership is limited to 40 dentists in active practice, and it was the club that commissioned the firm of Wiggins and Ogilby to design, construct, and carve a suitable indoor structure within this church dedicated to Horace Wells. In keeping with Gothic architectural principles and laden with iconography, the pew highlights the conquest of fear by the elimination of pain.47 The pew was unveiled in 1937 and presented to the college by the president of the Horace Wells Club (Fig. 5).47 The rich 3-dimensional carving is full of allegory. At the top is the Greek god of medicine, Aesculapius, with his staff held in his right hand and a cloak draped over his left arm. On an adjacent panel is an image of the early martyr and patroness of dentistry, Saint Apollonia, who was mercilessly tormented by having all her teeth violently broken and removed. She holds the palm leaf representing exultation, victory, and fertility in the left hand.36 In her right hand are the forceps, the torture instrument used to grip her last molar. On the center of the side panel is an encircled image of Horace Wells indicating the year of his birth, 1815, and that of his death, 1848.

Figure 5

Figure 5

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HORACE WELLS’ GRAVE IN CEDAR HILL CEMETERY

Within 30 years of the founding of the nation’s first landscaped cemetery, Mount Auburn Cemetery, in Cambridge, MA; Jacob Weidenmann, who also designed Bushnell Park, began work on the design of Cedar Hill Cemetery (Fig. 6, A–C). The cemetery lies on top of a hill and is surrounded by trees and lakes, creating a most peaceful environment. It is located to the south of Hartford, removed sufficiently far enough to be free of the noise, hustle and bustle of the city. One enters Cedar Hill Cemetery through the graceful Gallup Memorial Gateway that blends in with the romantic Victorian style of the nearby North Memorial Chapel. Horace and Elizabeth Wells’ remains currently rest in this cemetery, having been relocated from Hartford North Burying Ground by their son Charles Wells on May 18, 1908.48 At the time of Horace Wells’ tragic death, this beautiful cemetery had not yet been founded, and the concept of landscaped cemeteries was relatively new. The younger Wells also commissioned Louis Potter (1873–1912) to create a gravestone that would embody the benefits of his father’s discovery.26,48 Potter rose to the challenge and created a rectangular monument rich in allegories illustrating Horace Wells’ contributions to medicine. Unbelievably, the 3 original bronze castings were stolen in the 1980s, and now the monument is adorned by equally impressive replacement bronzes by Anatole Mikhailov, Modern Art Foundry, New York.48 These efforts would not have been successful but for the many contributions and support from the Horace Wells Club, the Hartford Medical and Dental Societies, the Aetna Foundation, and the Save Outdoor Sculptures Project.48 The large rectangular front piece has an inscription at the bottom that reads: There shall be no pain. Immediately above it floats a majestic angel, vapor emanating from her outstretched hands and offering this anesthetic as a gift to suffering humanity, shown only with a blanket covering the lower part of a man’s body. The angel’s wings which cover most of the upper portion of the plaque suggest ascent, support, and protection.27,36 The north face of the monument receives sunlight only at dusk, and on this surface is shown a woman with closed eyes surrounded by stars and poppies, symbols of sleep.27,36 At the bottom are carved the words: I Sleep to Awaken, reminding us that putting patients to sleep is only half the job. The sunny southern face also shows a woman, with a bright radiating sun over her head and open eyes. Inscribed below her are the words I Awaken to Glory. Additional adornments around her figure include a vine of morning glory flowers in full bloom, representing daytime; the awake state. The surrounding peace and tranquility and the beautifully landscaped grounds of this cemetery add to the majesty and uplifting experience of viewing Horace Wells’ monument. Samuel Colt, the inventor of the revolver, was once an itinerant laughing gas showman.49 His grave too is located on the grounds of this cemetery, as are those of many luminaries such as banking magnate J. Pierpont Morgan and actress Katharine Hepburn.

Figure 6

Figure 6

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CONNECTICUT HISTORICAL SOCIETY

The Connecticut Historical Society, established in Hartford in 1825, is one of the oldest historical societies in the nation, and has one of the largest costume and textile collections in New England.50 As a sanctuary for Hartford’s history, the society houses a considerable number of articles and writings of Horace Wells.

In 1847, after William Thomas Green Morton’s successful ether demonstration in Boston, MA, Horace Wells wrote a pamphlet to document and demonstrate his many contributions that preceded those of Morton, especially to appeal to and obtain recognition from scientific and medical societies in Europe.2,3 The society has an original copy of the document titled History of the Discovery of the Application of Nitrous Oxide Gas, Ether and Other Vapors to Surgical Operations, a collection of evidence related to Wells’ discovery. It explains how to administer gas or vapor to perform painless surgical operations. It also provides testimonials and affidavits to establish beyond any doubt, that Horace Wells deserves credit for the discovery of anesthesia.

As indicated earlier, Horace Wells committed suicide while in prison in New York.9–11 He died on January 24, 1848 and was buried on January 27, 1848. John Riggs, a friend of the family, obtained permission from Elizabeth Wells to create a death mask of her husband. This now abandoned practice was not uncommon during that period. A mask plaster mold is obtained first and an identical image transferred onto a bronze casting.51,52 Riggs wished to accurately capture and preserve detailed facial characteristics of his friend, a man who had not received the recognition he deserved during his brief lifetime. A death mask of Horace Wells is on display here, and on its reverse is engraved, HORACE WELLS/COPY OF DEATH MASK/THE ORIGINAL OF WHICH IS IN THE/BOSTON MEDICAL LIBRARY / MADE BY LEONARD CRASKE/AUG 1940 and to which is affixed a handwritten label marked, Original was made by Dr. John Riggs, former student of Dr. Wells, discoverer of anesthesia, at the request of John Wales, Hartford, Conn.(Fig. 7) Further copies could be made from death masks, and there is a copy of Horace Wells’ death mask in the collections of Clendening History of Medicine Library at the University of Kansas Medical Center, Kansas City, KS.

Figure 7

Figure 7

Wells’ contributions were recognized not only by the citizens of Hartford, but also by the Spanish Dental Society which donated to the city a silver coat of arms on January 14, 1907(Fig. 8). It measures 24 by 33 inches, and the use of the precious metal silver symbolizes purity.27 A laurel sheath on the left suggests victory and eternal life, bestowing glory and honor to the recipient.27,36 On the right is a branch full of oak leaves symbolizing strength, durability, and courage.27,36 At the top of the shield, the lamp represents enlightenment and immortality and emphasizes to future generations the importance of learning.27,36 The shield symbolizes the protection that suffering humanity has gained with the gift brought on by the discovery of anesthesia.27,36

Figure 8

Figure 8

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DISCUSSION

The controversy about which individual deserves credit for the discovery of anesthesia remains unresolved today, just as in the mid-19th century. We believe credit should be distributed among the contestants as follows: to William E. Clarke for being the first to use (only once) ether during a painless dental extraction, to Crawford Williamson Long for being the first to routinely administer ether for painless surgery, to Horace Wells for being the first to routinely administer nitrous oxide for painless dentistry, to Charles Thomas Jackson for suggesting that ether might be more suitable as an anesthetic during surgical procedures, and finally to W. T. G. Morton for the first public demonstration and popularization of ether as an effective anesthetic.

The Crawford W. Long Museum in Jefferson, GA and sites in and around Boston celebrate achievements of Long and W. T. G. Morton respectively.23,53–57 Until October 1, 2008, the Menczer Museum of Medicine and Dentistry, a great repository of Horace Wells-related artifacts was operated by the Hartford Medical Society. However, the museum is now defunct, and some of its collections remain dispersed and preserved at the Connecticut Historical Society, as well as Hartford Medical Society Historical Library on the premises of University of Connecticut Health Center, Farmington, CT. Charles Thomas Wells’ influence and wealth were forces that gave rise to some of the artifacts and sites that remind us of his father’s achievements. A lack of similar support is likely responsible for the dismantling of the precious museum.

Despite the loss of the museum, history enthusiasts can still visit and study many remaining sites and objects that recognize and celebrate Horace Wells’ significant role in the discovery of anesthesia. It is unfortunate that the lives of all 3 New England pioneers of anesthesia were laden with tragedy.58,59 A visit to these sites reminds us about why we study history. We experience and participate vicariously a bygone era, we recognize and document significant contributions made by others; and as with great literature, we are reminded of our own struggles, challenges, dilemmas, and successes in the lives and actions of past heroes.

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DISCLOSURES

Name: Antonio Aponte-Feliciano, MD.

Contribution: This author participated in study design, acquisition of information, acquisition of images, and manuscript preparation.

Attestation: This author attests to having approved the final manuscript.

Name: Sukumar P. Desai, MD.

Contribution: This author participated in study design, acquisition of information, and manuscript preparation.

Attestation: This author is the archival author. This author attests to having approved the final manuscript.

Name: Manisha S. Desai, MD.

Contribution: This author participated in study design, acquisition of information, and manuscript preparation.

Attestation: This author attests to having approved the final manuscript.

This manuscript was handled by: Steven L. Shafer, MD.

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