Surgery Before Anesthesia: Huntington Theatre's 'Ether Dome'

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The sound of a woman screaming – pure human agony – is how the Huntington Theatre Company's production of "Ether Dome" begins.

Her suffering is caused by a dental surgery being performed without anesthesia. The year is 1846, when most surgeries were barbaric operations done without the benefit of painkillers.

The play tells the story of a momentous advance in modern medicine: the discovery of ether. It's set largely at Massachusetts General Hospital, home of the famous Ether Dome, where the first public surgery using anesthetic was performed.

The play "Ether Dome" also tells the story of four men who jockeyed for credit for this world-changing invention: a dentist named Horace Wells; his student, William Morton; and two Mass General surgeons, Charles Jackson and John Warren.

In the play's ghastly opening scene, a patient with a gangrenous arm that needs to be amputated is rolled out in a coffin-like locked box. It has vents so she can breathe and a round opening for her bad arm to stick out of. She's yelling in terror because she's been given no anesthesia. Then a surgeon approaches with a saw — and begins to cut.

WBUR's Sacha Pfeiffer speaks with the playwright.


Liz Egloff, playwright


CommonHealth: ‘Ether Dome': The Story Of Numbing And Inflicting Pain

  • "The discovery, that inhaling a gas could make a patient insensible to pain, would change surgery and medicine forever. But it wasn’t clear who should get the credit. That question is at the heart of a Huntington Theatre production called 'Ether Dome.'"

The Boston Globe: A Too-Tangled Medical Tale In Huntington’s ‘Ether Dome’

  • "Elizabeth Egloff has a compelling tale to tell in “Ether Dome.’’ If only she’d told it in a more streamlined way."

This segment aired on October 23, 2014.

Headshot of Sacha Pfeiffer

Sacha Pfeiffer Host, All Things Considered
Sacha Pfeiffer was formerly the host of WBUR's All Things Considered.



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