First Operation Under Ether

Hinckley, Robert

Primary Category: Visual Arts / Painting/Drawing

Genre: Oil on canvas

Annotated by:
Shafer, Audrey
  • Date of entry: Aug-25-1998
  • Last revised: Jun-30-2006


The dentist, William Thomas Green Morton, gave the first successful public demonstration of anesthesia on October 16, 1846 at the Massachusetts General Hospital. This painting depicts the patient, Gilbert Abbot, sitting in a chair in the surgical amphitheater, eyes closed and neck exposed for the excision of a small vascular tumor of the jaw.

The surgeon, John Collins Warren, a distinguished Professor of Surgery at Harvard Medical School is leaning slightly forward, delicately holding a surgical tool vertically at the hidden point of incision. Morton holds his specially designed glass apparatus used to contain the anesthetic agent, ether.

Eleven other men watch the proceedings from the floor of the amphitheater, with varying levels of surprise and concentration. One is rising, as if in amazement, from a chair, and another steps up on a chair to see better. Two attend the patient: one holds his head and the other holds the right hand and checks the pulse at the wrist. Numerous men are seated in the gallery, and are painted with less and less detail, the higher the row.

The men are all dressed formally in dark suits, some with fur lapels, except for the patient, who is in white shirt with tan pants and dark shoes. This operation occurred before antisepsis and germ theory were discovered.

Hinckley used light and line to focus attention on the surgery. A strong diagonal line from the side wall of the gallery ends at Warren’s head. Light reflects off Morton’s ether inhaler, such that one can even see the sponge inside. The white of the patient’s shirt and the cloth and bowl on the instrument table in the foreground also serve to direct attention to the operation. Light glints off the surgeon’s head, although not as dramatically as in Thomas Eakins’s The Gross Clinic (see this database). Warren’s pronouncement at the end of the surgery, "Gentlemen, this is no humbug," paved the way for the rapid acceptance of anesthesia for surgery.


Hinckley researched the event for over ten years--the painting was done from 1881-1894--to commemorate this historic and important event. He chose a huge canvas (96x115 in.; 243x292 cm)to emphasize its importance. The discovery of anesthesia is one of the great (many say the greatest) gift(s) that American medicine has given the world. The amphitheater is preserved as the celebrated "Ether Dome."

Hinckley has been criticized for an inaccurate portrayal of who was actually present to witness this historic event. He may, however, have decided to include surgeons not actually there as a tribute to their prominence at the time.

No blood is shown on the patient, although apparently there was some present, as one story claims the photographer who was supposed to document the event was unable to, due to distress at the sight of blood. (A daguerreotype was made, however, by the same photographer at the second demonstration, the following day.)

Unfortunately, the story of the discovery of anesthesia has many tragedies, mostly due to squabbling about who was truly the first discoverer, and attempts to secure financial rewards (Morton called his anesthetic "Letheon" in an effort to patent it). Horace Wells, who gave an unsuccessful demonstration of nitrous oxide prior to the Morton demonstration, became mentally ill, violent, and committed suicide. Morton became mired in lawsuits and died in poverty. Although Crawford Long, a surgeon, had successfully used ether before 1846, he did not publish his results until later, and hence Morton’s demonstration is commemorated as the beginning of modern anesthesia.


For a complete listing and analysis of who is who in the painting and a black and white image, see the Web site: An informative Web site on the Ether Dome, this historic event, and the painting can be found at:

Primary Source

Nuland, Sherwin B. Medicine: The Art of Healing. New York: Hugh Lauter Levin Assoc., 1992; Rutkow, Ira M. Surgery: An Illustrated History. New York: Mosby 1993; Lyons, Albert S. and Petrucelli, R. Joseph II. Medicine: An Illustrated History. New York: Abr