Aug 21, 2014
11:57 AM
History

Hartford Stage's 'Ether Dome' Explores the Story of Dr. Horace Wells

Hartford Stage's 'Ether Dome' Explores the Story of Dr. Horace Wells

Images courtesy of Hartford Stage unless otherwise noted

Michael Bakkensen as Horace Wells, the tortured protagonist of "Ether Dome."

Few Connecticut residents realize that the course of medical history was forever changed for the better thanks to Horace Wells, a dentist from Hartford who in 1845 pioneered the use of anesthesia in dentistry and general medicine. Although Wells’ discovery is now recognized by everyone, his life and ultimately tragic end isn’t as well known. Until now.

Hartford Stage is presenting the East Coast premiere of Ether Dome, a new historical epic by Elizabeth Egloff chronicling Wells’ dramatic tale. After trial runs in Houston, Tex., and LaJolla, Calif., the play opens in Hartford on Sept. 11 and runs through Oct. 5, and includes a score by John Gromada, who won a Tony for his work on The Trip to Bountiful, projections and sets from James Youmans and period costumes by David Woolard.

“It’s a fantastic production—there are parts of it that just feel like an earlier American version of ‘Downton Abbey,’ but more scientific,” says Michael Wilson (left), former artistic director of Hartford Stage who is returning to direct the work he originally commissioned nine years ago after walking through Bushnell Park, seeing a statue of Wells and learning his story. “You really go on an epic journey as these people were trying to find a solution to end traumatic pain during sur­gery. And it all began with Horace Wells in Hartford, whose dental office was above the Burger King there on Asylum and Main—there’s a plaque there that commemorates where his office was.”

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Wells (right) was practicing dentistry in Hartford in 1844 when he attended a traveling carnival during which there was a performance involving audience members being given nitrous oxide, or “laughing gas,” a recent discovery at the time. Wells noticed that one member of the audience under the influence of the gas hadn’t felt any pain after injuring his leg, and wondered if the gas could be applied to dentistry, which was routinely performed without any sort of pain relief, like most surgeries at the time. Wells experimented on himself at first, successfully having a tooth extracted without pain, and then  with success on other willing patients.  

Wells gained notoriety for his efforts and was soon asked to demonstrate his new painless procedure at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston in 1845. However, during the demonstration there was a mistake made in administering the nitrous oxide that resulted in the patient being operated upon calling out in pain. Wells was instantly declared a fraud and publicly discredited, forcing him to give up dentistry.

Wells bounced around for the next few years, during which his former student William Morton took Wells’ original idea of inhaled anesthesia—substituting the more dangerous gas ether for nitrous oxide while also failing to credit Wells for his role in developing the process—and passed it off as his own discovery. Morton successfully demonstrated the process at Mass General in 1847, and was even able to somewhat capitalize financially.

Meanwhile, the disgraced Wells continued his downward spiral, eventually becoming addicted to chloroform, which greatly affected his mental stability. In 1848 while under the influence of chloroform, he threw sulfuric acid on two prostitutes, for which he was arrested and sent to prison. While incarcerated, Wells hit rock bottom. After giving himself one last dose of chloroform, he committed suicide by slashing an artery in his leg with a razor.

History was kinder to Wells than he was to himself. Within 25 years of his death, Wells was recognized and honored posthumously by both the American Dental Association and American Medical Association as the discoverer of modern anesthesia.

Wilson says the irony of Wells’ story—the man who spared millions from unnecessary suffering himself endured a tortured life—makes for compelling theater. “I was stunned by it, especially when I got to the part where Robert Louis Stevenson was inspired to write ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ based on Horace Wells’ life,” he says. “I thought, ‘My goodness, we’ve got to delve deeper into this.’”

Wilson and his team—which includes 16 actors playing 30 different parts—also reached deep for authenticity, bringing in anesthesiologists to learn proper medical techniques from the era, as well as dentists and surgeons. “We’ve built prosthetic pieces that have blood pumping through them so that when there’s  a scalpel cut, blood runs out of an arm,” says Wilson.

Ether Dome's William Morton (Tom Patterson) confronting his mentor Horace Wells (Michael Bakkensen).


Ultimately, Ether Dome hinges on the compelling real-life events between Wells and his former student and protégé, Morton, who with the support of Massachusetts General Hospital, attempted to usurp the acclaim due Wells.  

“Horace’s situation is extremely moving,” says Wilson. “It’s a very compelling part of not only Hartford history, but all of America’s. In this instance, this man who was from outside of Worcester, Mass., son of an alcoholic farmer, overcame class barriers and educational barriers to lay a rightful claim as the discoverer of what Oliver Wendell Holmes said was the single greatest innovation in medicine that Americans had ever contributed. It’s a fascinating story.”

(860) 527-5151, hartfordstage.org.
 

Contact Ray at rbendici@connecticutmag.com, follow him on Twitter, and connect with Connecticut Magazine on Twitter, on Facebook and on Google +.

 

Hartford Stage's 'Ether Dome' Explores the Story of Dr. Horace Wells

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