History of Anesthesia in Dentistry

Posted by Pioneer Lasers on

Old Comic Pen Drawing of Humphry Davy Breathing In Gas

Source, The Wellcome Library 

Laser dentistry is introducing a new era where even topical isn’t needed for lots of soft tissue procedures. However, the discovery and implementation of anesthetics in dentistry helped to move the profession away from it’s dark and painful past. Here are two unique stories of how Ether and Laughing Gas were introduced into dentistry.


Ether Inhaler

Ether wasn’t used until the late 1700’s. This colorless and pleasant smelling liquid was the first effective numbing agents which proved to help in a variety of surgeries. The first public surgery of a tooth extraction without constant screams from the patient was performed by William Morton. He claimed to have discovered the medical purpose for this anesthesia. However, the discovery was more along the lines of developing an effective administration method for the ether to be administered to the patient. By soaking sponges in the substance and placing them in a bowl like glass pipe, patients were able to inhale the gas for its numbing effects.


Laughing Gas

The discovery of use for what we today call “Laughing Gas” occurred in the 1800’s by Englishman and Chemist, Humphry Davy. He and his assistant, Dr. Kinglake, set out to see how the inhalation of nitrous oxide would affect people through self-experimentation. They would first heat the ammonium nitrate crystal to collect the gas in an oiled-silk bag. It would then be passed through water vapor as a purification process before being inhaled through a mouthpiece. Needless to say, Davy and Kinglake enjoyed the results and continued their self-administered experiments, each becoming more intense with a couple of near-death experiences.

Despite Davy’s extensive work with laughing gas, it wasn’t by his efforts that nitrous oxide made it into the hands of dentists. Gardner Quincy Colton was a traveling showman and former medical student. He began traveling the country giving presentations of the gas which caught the attention of Horace Wells in Connecticut.

It was around 1844 when Horace Wells introduced the gas into dentistry. In his effort to prove how it can relieve pain, he inhaled the gas before having his own tooth pulled. He quickly learned that although the gas didn’t help at all with the pain, it was effective for patient relaxation.

But Wells wasn’t the only one who would promote laughing gas. Years later, after a failed gold finding attempt in California, the former traveling showman, Gardner Colton, turned back to the east and started a Dental Association determined to promote nitrous oxide in procedures. This proved to be very successful as Colton had tens of thousands of tooth extractions using effective laughing gas.


Due to work and experimentation of these men, dentistry was able to continue its path in turning away from it’s more barbaric roots. Dentistry continues to make amazing jumps in technology and practices. It’s a wonder where the industry may be even 10 years from now.  


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