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American Medical Biographies/Long, Crawford Williamson

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Long, Crawford Williamson (1815–1878)

The credit for first using ether as an anesthetic, though not of demonstrating it to the medical world, must be ascribed to Crawford W., son of James Long, a lawyer of Danielsville, Georgia, where Crawford was born on the first day of November, 1815.

His paternal grandfather, Capt. Samuel Long, of Pennsylvania, distinguished himself during the Revolutionary War, and was one of Gen. Lafayette's officers at Yorktown.

He matriculated at Franklin College—now the University of Georgia—at an early age. Subsequently studying for one year at the University of Pennsylvania, he graduated there D. M. in 1839, then spent a year in New York, and there attained reputation as a skilful surgeon, and though a young man, soon acquired an extensive practice, for his abilities were apparent. In 1841, because of family importunities, he returned to Georgia and began practice in the village of Jefferson. His office became the place of sojourn of the young men of the village who desired a pleasant evening. About that time the inhalation of laughing gas, as an exhilarant, was much discussed. Lecturers on chemistry would sometimes entertain by giving a "nitrous oxide party," during which the participants would become drunk from breathing it. It was in the winter of 1841 that some young friends importuned Dr. Long to permit them to have a party in his rooms. The physician had no means of preparing nitrous oxide gas, but suggested that sulphuric ether would produce similar exhilaration. The ether was produced; the young men inhaled and became hilarious, some of them receiving bruises. Long noted these bruises were not accompanied with pain, so divined that ether must have the power of producing insensibility, and from this simple observation came the great discovery of anesthesia.

He promptly determined to prove the value of his discovery, and during the month of March, 1842, ether was administered to Mr. James Venable until he was completely anesthetized, then a small cystic tumor was taken from the back of his neck. To the amazement of the patient he experienced no pain. From five to eight other cases, testing the anesthetic power of ether, were satisfactorily dealt with by Dr. Long during the years 1842 and 1843—quite a goodly number when it is remembered that more than half a century ago surgical operations were not frequent in the country practice of a young physician.

Dr. Crawford Long's surgical operations, under ether, were exhibited to medical men and also to persons of the community, as established by affidavits of persons operated upon, and of witnesses to the operations. Says Ange De Laperrière, M. D., of Jackson County: "I do certify to the fact of Dr. C. W. Long using sulphuric ether by inhalation to prevent pain in surgical operations was frequently spoken of and became notorious in the county of Jackson, Georgia, in the year 1843." In May, 1843, Drs. R. D. Moore and Joseph B. Carlton, for many years leading physicians in the city of Athens, Georgia, discussed the trial of Dr. C. W. Long's discovery in a case of surgery before them. They were unfortunately prevented from making the experiment by having none of the fluid at hand. Mrs. Emma Carlton, widow of Dr. Joseph B. Carlton, who died recently in Athens after living here for many years, signed the following: "I do certify that Dr. Crawford W. Long, of Jefferson, Jackson County, advised my husband, Dr. Joseph B. Carlton, a resident of Athens, Georgia, to try sulphuric ether as an anesthetic in his practice. In November or December, 1844, in Jefferson, Georgia, while on a visit to that place, in the office of Dr. Long, my husband extracted a tooth from a boy who was under the influence, by inhalation, of sulphuric ether, without pain—the boy not knowing when it was done. I further certify that the fact of Long using sulphuric ether, by inhalation, to prevent pain, was frequently spoken of in the county of Jackson at this time, and was quite notorious."

It is to be regretted that Long did not at once make known to the world his great discovery of anesthesia. Considered from a present point of view, his delay seems extraordinary. But it must not be forgotten that since that period the world has moved with exceeding rapidity. Sixty-five years ago, for a young medical practitioner in an obscure village, far from contact with centers of thought, removed from railroads, enjoying but modest postal facilities, with no great hospital organizations or medical associations to confirm his professional research, for a modest, diffident, young physician to claim so startling a discovery as anesthesia has proven to be without first securing most exhaustive proof of its worth, would have brought upon him the adverse criticism of his elders, and possibly the laughter of his colleagues.

Dr. William H. Welch said that Long "is necessarily deprived of the larger honor which would have been his due had he not delayed publication of his experiments with ether until several years after the universal acceptance of surgical anesthesia … we need not with hold from Dr. Long the credit of independent and prior experiment and discovery but we cannot assign to him any influence upon the historical development of our knowledge of surgical anesthesia or any share in its introduction to the world at large." A careful examination of the question clearly shows that two and a half years elapsed after the discovery by Crawford W. Long, before Dr. Wells (q.v.), of Hartford, knew the anesthetic power of nitrous oxide; that four and a half years passed after Dr. Long's initial experiment before Dr. Morton (q.v.) claimed to have the same knowledge. Morton is declared to have received the suggestion from C. T. Jackson (q.v.); the latter claim to have made the discovery about the time Dr. Long made it, but left it to Morton to prove it practically. Hugh H. Young of John Hopkins' Hospital, in his interesting pamphlet entitled "Long, the Discoverer of Anesthesia," says "The immediate and universal use of anesthesia in surgery is due to the great Boston surgeons, Warren, Hayward and Bigelow."

In 1849 Morton petitioned Congress for a reward as the discoverer, but he was opposed by the friends of Wells and Jackson. The friends of Morton and Wells presented volumes of testimony to the Senate of the United States in behalf of their candidates, but Jackson afterwards acknowledged the justice of Dr. Long's cause. For five years Crawford W. Long refused to take any part in the controversy, but he naturally desired to be recognized as the discoverer of anesthesia, and to that effect wrote an article for the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal.

Confronted by so formidable an opponent as Dr. Long, the friends of Morton and Wells finally seemed to lose hope, the bill before Congress was allowed to die, and it was never resurrected. In 1877 Dr. J. Marion Sims investigated the claims of Dr. Long to the discovery of anesthesia, and was convinced of their merit. He demanded their recognition by the medical profession, Dr. Long especially desiring the endorsement of the American Medical Association. It was but a short time afterwards that Dr. Long died, on the sixteenth of June, 1878, in the city of Athens, Georgia, for many years the place of his residence. In 1910 an obelisk, given by Dr. L. G. Hardman, was set up in the city of Athens in memory of Long.

He married, in 1842, Caroline, niece of Gov. Swain of North Carolina.

Abridged from Long and His Discovery, Dr. Isham H. Goss, Nov., 1908.
Trans. Med. Asso., Georgia, Augusta, 18.81, vol. xxvii.
Vir. Med. Mon., Richmond, 1878, vol. v.
There is a portrait in the Surg.-Gen.'s Lib., Washington, D. C., and in Packard's Hist. of Med. in the U. S., Phila., 1901.
Medicine in America, J. G. Mumford, 1903.
A Consideration of the Introduction of Surgical Anesthesia, William H. Welch, 1908.