In 1868, a man named Eben Frost redeems a medal from a pawn shop and delivers it to a widow, Elizabeth Morton (Betty Field). Twenty years earlier her late husband W.T. Morton had used anesthesia on Frost for a dental procedure.

Flashback two decades, Morton (Joel McCrea) and his wife marry and he struggles in dentistry. Learning of Letheon (ether) from fellow dentist Horace Wells (Louis Jean Heydt), he successfully applies it in his practice for painless tooth extraction. Surgeons are interested but skeptical and want to know the composition. In keeping the simple formula a secret, Morton could become wealthy, but he is prompted to reveal its composition when confronted with a little girl bravely awaiting an operation.

Losing the prospect of gain from ether, he sets his financial hopes on his patented invention of a glass inhaler for administering it. Congress votes him a reward of $100,000, but his patent is infringed and rivals conspire to block justice and rewards. Morton dies young, poor, and unknown.


Based on Triumph Over Pain by Rene Fulop-Miller, a dramatic rendition of the famous discovery of ether anesthesia which W.T. Morton demonstrated for an operation performed by John Collins Warren at the Massachusetts General Hospital in October 1846. This moment has been immortalized in the much later painting by Robert Hinckley, First Operation Under Ether (see this database). Made on the eve of the centennial, the producers of this film may also have been prompted by wartime preoccupation with surgery. Known mostly for comedies, Sturges was an odd choice to direct this topic and the film is considered a flop by critics who point out that it led to his departure from Paramount and that, in fairness, the final cuts were not his.

One rather unique characteristic of this tale of medical discovery, and belying the title, the Great Moment was attended by many lesser moments of pedestrian gloom. Ether had numerous proponents and several earlier public demonstrations, but Warren’s endorsement of Morton’s idea was key to convincing the world. The details of Horace Wells’s tragic end in a New York City jail are glossed over, and the irascible character of the peculiar chemist Charles Jackson indulges in some artistic liberties. The poignant human interest side of the story is tempered by the mundane portrayal of dentistry as small business and the frustrations inherent to owning and profiting from a discovery. A few clumsy attempts at humor appear as if to soften the message: Morton experiments on Frost with the wrong drug and, in a drunken blur, he attempts to anesthetize his own dog.

Nevertheless, many of the leading names in the discovery of anesthesia appear in the film. For students, it is a delightful double introduction to history: both for the mid-nineteenth-century events it portrays and for the mid-twentieth-century moment in which it was made.

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