Young America. The Daguerreotypes of Southworth & Hawes. George Eastman House International Center of Photography
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THE DEATH OF PAIN

The knife is searching for disease—the pulleys are dragging back dislocated limbs—nature herself is working out the primal curse, which doomed the tenderest of her creatures to the sharpest of her trials; but the fierce extremity of suffering has been steeped in the waters of forgetfulness, and the deepest furrow in the knotted brow of agony has been smoothed forever.

—Dr. Oliver W. Holmes

On the evening of September 30, 1846, Mr. Eben Frost, suffering from a violent toothache, called upon Dr. W.T.G. Morton, of No. 19 Tremont Row, Boston, whose office coincidentally shared the same address as the Southworth & Hawes studio. Dr. Morton administered the vapor of sulphuric ether to Mr. Frost and extracted the tooth. The patient was “lost in sleep” and “did not experience the slightest pain whatever.”

Less than three weeks later, the so-called “Death of Pain” took place on October 16, when the first public operation was performed with the aid of ether. Dr. John Collins Warren, senior surgeon at the Massachusetts General Hospital, administered ether to his patient Gilbert Abbott in order to remove a tumor from his neck. To commemorate this historic and momentous event, Southworth and Hawes were asked to daguerreotype a re-enactment of the operation.

In March 1847, Dr. John Collins Warren’s son, Dr. J. Mason Warren, announced his discovery of a simpler way to administer ether. Rather than having a patient inhale the vapors from a flask, the doctor placed an ether-soaked sponge over the patient’s mouth and nose. This improved method was first used on April 3 that same year by Dr. John Collins Warren at Massachusetts General Hospital. The patient was Athalana Golderman, a young seamstress. This time, the actual operation was photographed as it took place.

Three or four weeks later, Southworth and Hawes were again commissioned to record another operation. The intent of this commission was to honor Dr. John Collins Warren for his role in the ether discovery and for his distinguished career on the eve of his retirement as professor of anatomy at Harvard’s medical school. The scene is arranged and composed as an anatomy lesson with the principal subject being Dr. John Collins Warren.

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