ETHER DAY: The Strange Tale of America's Greatest Medical Discovery and the Haunted Men Who Made It

Julie M. Fenster, Author
Julie M. Fenster, Author . HarperCollins $24 (278p) ISBN 978-0-06-019523-6
Reviewed on: 06/18/2001
Release date: 08/01/2001
Paperback - 288 pages - 978-0-06-093317-3
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The fates of the men involved in the first use of anesthesia in surgery—in Boston, on October 16, 1846—and its aftermath read like a tragedy by Aeschylus or Racine. Fenster, a columnist for American Heritage and a contributor to the New York Times, ably renders the three main characters, who typify that common 19th-century American combination of brilliance, ambition and mental instability. Charles Jackson, related by marriage to Ralph Waldo Emerson, was more renowned for his geological studies than his medical practice. Horace Wells had been the first to use nitrous oxide in dentistry. William Morton, who designed the delivery device for the ether and administered it, had enjoyed a long career as a con man. After their "unwilling collaboration," they argued about who actually made the discovery and should reap the financial rewards. Jackson, who claimed that Samuel Morse stole the idea for the telegraph from him, was supported by Emerson in his Atlantic Monthly. He spent his final years in a mental institution. Wells was championed by the Connecticut legislature. Later, addicted to chloroform, he committed suicide in jail. Morton failed in his efforts to patent a mixture of ether and oil of orange. After some years unsuccessfully lobbying Congress to reward him, he collapsed in Central Park in 1868 and died en route to a hospital. Fenster jumps between the figures' backstories somewhat confusingly, and her occasionally laughable rhetorical devices would give a high school yearbook editor pause. Nonetheless, this extensive book will attract fans of the history of medicine and 19th-century Americana. Photos and illus. (Aug. 5)

Forecast: A 25-city national radio campaign coupled with author appearances in New York City, Boston and Philadelphia will give this book the exposure necessary to sell its 25,000 initial printing.

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