Saturday, August 2, 2008

Who is Horace Wells?

Paris is chock full of markers and statues, and I find that I rarely walk down the street without coming across a plaque on a building commemorating the fact that a historic man of letters lived there or marking the spot where a hero of the resistance died. Or something like that. Although I've taken to carrying a pad and pen with me everywhere, I don't always take the time to note these bits of history to look up later.

But this week, I passed a statue in a park in the 16th arrondissement that made me scratch my head. Horace Wells? The lettering below the bust reads (in translation) "American dentist and innovater of surgical anesthesia". What the heck was he doing here? I still don't know the answer to that question but I did learn a bit about him while I tried to figure it out. It turns out that while old Horace was a pioneer in the use of nitrous oxide, his career took a few bad turns including being boohed by students at Mass General when he demonstrated the technique there, a couple of years as a traveling salesman that somehow took him to Paris in 1846, and finally an addiction to chloroform. One day (or so says Wikipedia), while in a deranged state wandering around the streets of New York, he threw sulfuric acid on two prostitutes. When the chloroform wore off, he realized what a horrible thing he'd done and committed suicide. The Paris Medical Society and the American Medical Association both much later recognized his achievements. Too little too late for him, I guess.

2 comments:

Nelson said...

It's good that Paris gives Wells his due. In the Boston Common there's a monument to ether. It seems a bit bizarre but anesthesia was a major innovation in the 1840s. Ether was promoted by William Morton, a student, business partner, and rival of Wells'.

My question is why the 16th?

alan said...

The choice and location of this statue is clearly a slight to the memory of Dr. Thomas W. Evans---- whose skillful use of nitrous oxide helped make him the most celebrated American dentist of the 19th century, dentist to the high ranks of European society, and based on what is now Avenue Foch, in Paris.

Dr. Evans could be a bit vain from time to time---- and certainly had others grind their teeth in jealous envy. This is their revenge.

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