Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Horace Wells

Roshan Radhakrishnan
Kerala, India


In 1845, a dentist stepped onto the spotlight at the revered Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. He wanted to show his medical brethren something unique, something unheard of back then in the field of surgery. He wanted to show them how the world could finally be rid of pain.

The young man at thirty had performed this miracle successfully for over a year before this moment. History notes that he tested it on himself first successfully before trying it on his patients. In the one year he had been using the drug he never even considered patenting it. In his words, pain relief was meant to be “as free as the air.” The stage was set for the greatest advance in surgical history—the discovery of anesthesia and pain relief.

It was a soul-crushing failure. Unnerved by an audience of his seniors and an uncooperative patient, he administered too little of the drug and the patient screamed in pain at the first incision. He had to leave the hall to boos and chants of “humbug!” and was discredited by the medical community. He was so traumatized that he considered giving up dentistry.

The drug he studied and used on himself was nitrous oxide, laughing gas, used even today in operation theaters and dental practices across the globe. He wanted to rid the world of pain and was instead ostracized and isolated for a single failure. No one came to give him a second chance. His associate would eventually give a successful demonstration of another drug in the same hall two years later and become known forever as the one who changed the world of surgery, further accentuating the failure of Wells. The scars of his failure would haunt him forever. He withdrew from the public and eventually took his own life three days after his thirty-third birthday.

One hundred and sixty-nine years have passed since that day in Boston. And yet, people are still alone even today in their moments of failure. We still shun and ridicule someone who tries to do something and fails at it, branding them with our virtual hot-irons.

When Wells failed, surely there were well-wishers somewhere who felt sorry for him; people who had heard of his feat and even been treated successfully by his wonder drug. They could not let him know they cared for him when it mattered; they could not inspire him to try again.

Horace Wells’ Memorial at Cedar Hill Cemetery remains one of the best examples of a monument that chooses to inspire rather than remind us of the sorrow of the man within. The words carved into the front state—“There shall be no pain.” At the back lies a dedication—”Horace Wells, Discoverer of Anaesthesia.”

Horace Wells died believing he was a failure. We, in the medical field, celebrate him as the discoverer of modern anesthesia. He felt he let us down.

The truth is, we let a good man down that day. Wells wanted pain relief to be as free as the air. Today, his vision is a reality. Physical pain relief is available for all, from leader to laborer.



For Dr. ROSHAN RADHAKRISHNAN, bringing a smile on a person’s face and making them forget their own worries is the ultimate reward at the end of the day. He achieves that goal by donning two masks: one of an anaesthesiologist and the other of a whimsical writer. In 2014, his blog (www.godyears.net) was chosen as the Best Blog in India for Creative Writing at the country’s first Blog Conference and Awards Ceremony.


Summer 2016  |  Sections  |  Moments in History

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