Boston Globe Incorrectly Attributes First Anesthesia Operation to MassGen Doctor Instead of Georgian


Mike Jay at the Boston Globe had what appeared to be a pretty compelling lookback piece on Sunday, June 7. It started as follows:

The day pain died
What really happened during the most famous moment in Boston medicine

The date of the first operation under anesthetic, Oct. 16, 1846, ranks among the most iconic in the history of medicine. It was the moment when Boston, and indeed the United States, first emerged as a world-class center of medical innovation. The room at the heart of Massachusetts General Hospital where the operation took place has been known ever since as the Ether Dome, and the word "anesthesia" itself was coined by the Boston physician and poet Oliver Wendell Holmes to denote the strange new state of suspended consciousness that the city's physicians had witnessed. The news from Boston swept around the world, and it was recognized within weeks as a moment that had changed medicine forever.

Wow. Pretty bracing stuff, except for one thing: A commenter named "introp" told the Globe (currently the fourth comment down) that they're wrong about Morton being first.

The evidence is on the side of "introp."

Here's "introp's" comment:

The first documented case of ether use for anesthesia was by Crawford Long on 30 March 1842 to remove a tumor from a patient's neck. That was *four years* before Morton's well-publicized case. Before publishing an article on the development of anesthesia, you perhaps should have asked a member of the American Society of Anesthesiologists (ASA): they could have set you straight.

Indeed, a quick visit to ASA's web site, which may even be accessible from the Boston Globe's newsroom, confirms this (paragraph breaks added by me):

On March 30, 1842, Crawford W. Long, M.D., a graduate of the School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, administered the first anesthetic for surgery in his office on the corner of the village square in Jefferson, Georgia. Dr. Long was a native of nearby Danielsville, Georgia, and had recently returned home after completing several months of advanced training in surgery in New York City. The patient was a friend, James Venable, and the surgery was the excision of a lump from the back of Mr. Venable’s neck.

Dr. Long eventually moved away from Jefferson and settled in Athens, Georgia. His claim to have performed the first anesthetic was largely ignored by the rest of the world, but the citizens of Jefferson never forgot this pioneering physician.

After he moved, the building that Dr. Long used for an office continued to be occupied by another physician for a while but was eventually torn down, and in the late 1800s, two buildings were built on the site. One of the buildings was a general store until 1957 when it was converted to a museum honoring Dr. Long and his historic accomplishment at that location.

The commenter's correct point has been at the Globe since the morning of June 10. There is no evidence of a correction at Jay's article, but the Globe did run a separate correction on June 13 (bold is mine):

Correction: Because of a reporting error, a story in the June 7 Ideas section mischaracterized William Morton's 1846 use of ether at Massachusetts General Hospital as the first surgical operation under anesthetic. It was the first such operation to be demonstrated publicly.

The correction, never incorporated into or mentioned at Jay's piece as far as I can tell, is inadequate in any event. Wikipedia tells us the following:

Although William T. G. Morton is well-known for performing his historic anesthesia on October 16, 1846 in Boston, Massachusetts, C. W. Long is now known to be the first to have used an ether-based anesthesia. Morton is now sometimes credited as performing the first "public" demonstration of ether as a surgical anesthetic, however this is also erroneous as Dr. Long publicly demonstrated ether's use as a surgical anesthetic on numerous occasions before 1846. In 1854, Long requested William Crosby Dawson, a U.S. Senator, to present his claims to the attention of Congress.

Wiki, of course, doesn't prove anything by itself, but the book linked by Wiki, at Page 134, tells us that:

(Long) operated on at least eight cases .... before Morton claimed to have discovered anesthesia," and that two other doctors taught by Long "used ether successfully in their surgical practice before date of Dr. Morton's "discovery." .... It is beyond question that Dr. Long at once announced his discovery to the physicians of the community in which he lived, an that he was regarded by them as having made a discovery of importance, so important in fact that they used ether with success in their own practice.

Maybe in the Globe's newsroom something doesn't count as "public" unless and until the news travels to Boston.

Much of the rest of Jay's writing is at the very least suspect, but not easily investigated by yours truly in the time available.

The reporter seems to overstate the ferocity of religion-based opposition to the very idea of relieving pain. He further implies that the Catholic Church didn't legitimize anesthesia for the faithful until the mid-1950s when he writes that, "Some religious voices would hold out for a good deal longer: Pope Pius XII would confirm that 'the Christian's duty of renunciation and of interior purification is not an obstacle to the use of anaesthetics' only in February 1957." Given that plenty of Catholic hospitals were using anesthesia well before the mid-1950s, Jay's sentence introduction, shortly followed by the word "confirmed" in its body, comes off as a deliberately misleading play to the "Christians/Catholics are dinosaurs" crowd.

Jay's article still opens with the claim that Morton's was "the first operation under anesthetic." Jay's opening is wrong. Only someone looking for a correction elsewhere at the Globe's site would find it.

The Globe is apparently okay with that. Perhaps that explains why, based on circulation figures, fewer New Englanders are okay with the idea of reading it.

Cross-posted at

Media Bias Debate Health Care Bias by Omission Major Newspapers Boston Globe Mike Jay