In 1922, an Atlanta, Georgia-based physician named Frank K. Boland penned an article bemoaning how few of his fellow doctors understood the history of anesthesia, which—along with germ theory—had utterly revolutionized medicine over the course of the past century. His article begins,
"When King Edward VII of England, in 1902, awoke from the anesthetic which had been administered to him in performing an operation for perityphlitis, he asked his surgeon, Sir Frederick Treves, “Who discovered anesthesia?” Sir Frederick answered at once, “It was an American, your Majesty, Crawford W. Long.” There are many authorities, however, who will not concede this fact. Osler, a tireless student of medical history, gives another credit for the discovery, as do Welch, Keen, Garrison and others. In discussing the history of anesthesia, the Encyclopedia Britannica fails to mention Long's name."
Instead of Long, many writers had credited the first painless surgery to William Thomas Green Morton, a Massachusetts dentist who gave the first public demonstration of anesthetization using ether in 1846. Four years earlier, however, on March 30, 1842, Long used ether to render a patient insensible to pain as he removed a neck tumor.
Why ether? As Long later wrote with admirable honesty, he used to accidentally hurt himself all the time while high on the gas—and realized he never experienced pain at the moment of injury.
"On numerous occasions I have inhaled ether for its exhilarating properties, and would frequently, at some short time subsequent to its inhalation, discover bruised or painful spots on my person, which I had no recollection of causing, and which I felt satisfied were received while under the influence of ether. I noticed, my friends, while etherized, received falls and blows, which I believed were sufficient to produce pain on a person not in a state of anaesthesia, and an questioning them, they uniformly assured me that they did not feel the least pain from these accidents. These facts are mentioned, that the reasons may be apparent why I was induced to make an experiment in etherization."
Over the next few years, Long had further successes over the next few years, as he used ether to negate patients' pain in other surgeries and even childbirth. He didn't publish his surgical triumphs until 1849, however. In his article, he explained the delay:
"[T]hrough negligence I have now permitted a much longer time to elapse than I designed, or than my professional friends with whom I consulted advised; but as no account has been published, (so far as I have been able to ascertain), of the inhalation of ether being used to prevent pain in surgical operations as early as March, 1842. My friends think I would be doing myself injustice, not to notify my brethren of the medical profession of my priority of the use of ether by inhalation in surgical practice."
By this time, Morton had already received public credit for finding a way to save patients' lives without submitting them to excruciating pain. Still, Long deserves recognition for being first. As Boland quipped,
"We have sat at the feet of these masters and have learned much from them and we honor them for it. But we also must have respect for the spinster school teacher who taught us arithmetic and from whom we learned that 1842 is an earlier date in history than 1846."
Indeed, 1842 came before 1846—and Long successfully used ether as an anesthetic before Morton.