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Open Wide, This Won't Hurt a Bit: The Discovery of Anesthesia

Living in Hartford almost all my life I've known for years the story of Horace Wells. At least, I know the story I know, which is that Wells was a Hartford dentist who introduced anesthesia. He may have been the first but I've always known there were other pretenders to that crown. 

I also knew that Wells became addicted to one of those products and died a horrible, tragic and ignominious death.

But, that's all I knew and I wondered how widely known that story was. 

When John Irving's Cider House came out, I noticed that one of the two main characters was named Homer Wells and that the protagonist was a doctor addicted to ether. Coincidence maybe, but the drama of Wells' tale is undeniable and now it has been adopted for the stage.

Whatever the truth of that tale, anesthesia changed medicine forever. 

Before anesthesia, a doctor was judged on how fast he could complete a procedure instead of his technical skill. That's because the extreme pain and blood loss from the patient would kill the patient if a doctor took too much time.

Before anesthesia, pain was the path to Heaven. Anesthesia not only removed the pain but the sanctity associated with it, ushering in a clash of cultures between religious beliefs and the logic of scientific discovery.

Before anesthesia, doctors sought to ease suffering of patients in pain, drawing compensation from a good deed done instead of financial remuneration. 

Anesthesia changed medicine forever...and a Hartford dentist had a role in it. 


  • Elizabeth Egloff is an award-winning playwright whose plays include The Swan; Phaedra; The Lover; Wolf-Man; The Devils.
  • David Crombie is a retired doctor who is interested in local history. 
  • Gary Flores is the Chief of Anesthesiology and Chief-of-Staff at Houston Methodist Sugarland Hospital and President of the Greater Houston Anesthesiology Group.


Colin McEnroe is a radio host, newspaper columnist, magazine writer, author, playwright, lecturer, moderator, college instructor and occasional singer. Colin can be reached at colin@ctpublic.org.
Chion Wolf is the host of Audacious with Chion Wolf on Connecticut Public, featuring conversations with people who have uncommon or misunderstood experiences, conditions, or professions.
Betsy started as an intern at WNPR in 2011 after earning a Master's Degree in American and Museum Studies from Trinity College. She served as the Senior Producer for 'The Colin McEnroe Show' for several years before stepping down in 2021 and returning to her previous career as a registered nurse. She still produces shows with Colin and the team when her schedule allows.

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