With nominations now open for the Hartford Medical Society’s 2023 Award Show, we are diving into the history of Horace Wells, the inspiration behind our inaugural Horace Wells Humanitarian Awards.
The Horace Wells Humanitarian Awards honor three distinguished individuals for their contributions to the betterment of the Greater Hartford Area. The Distinguished Service Award, Hartford’s Impact on the World Award, and the Rising Practitioner Award celebrate medical professionals, students, and residents, who have shown exemplary volunteer efforts, humanitarian support, and growth in the medical field.
Who Was Horace Wells?
Horace Wells was born in January 1815 in Hartford, Vermont. In 1836, Wells relocated to Hartford, Connecticut, to practice dentistry. Wells built a successful practice and shared his education by writing textbooks and creating patented inventions.
Although Wells was an esteemed and brilliant dentist, most of his practice involved extracting teeth, a procedure he intensely disliked. During the operations, his patients were uncomfortable, giving him reason to pause and strategize ways to comfort his patients experiencing pain. While attending a “Grand Exhibition of the Effects Produced by Inhaling Nitrous Oxide,” Wells noticed that those who inhaled nitrous oxide could injure themselves without pain. On December 10, 1844, Wells received a bag of gas and had his colleague, John Riggs, administer the gas to him before extracting one of his teeth.
Experiencing no pain from the procedure, Wells forever changed the medical field through a deep sympathy and desire to make the tooth extraction process more pleasant and bearable for his patients.
The Tragedy of Horace Wells
Although Wells revolutionized the medical field by discovering and recognizing the importance of pain treatment during procedures, he did not receive the accolades he deserved during his lifetime.
In January 1845, Wells showed his findings on the effects of nitrous oxide at the Massachusetts General Hospital. While demonstrating a procedure on a student, they cried out despite feeling no pain. Due to this prank, the demonstration was considered a failure, and Wells was quickly discredited.
After falling into depression, Wells gave up his practice in April 1845. In 1846, William Morton, a dental surgeon, and Wells’ former partner, successfully demonstrated ether anesthesia. This gave Wells a spark to begin extensive self-experimentation with nitrous oxide, ether, and chloroform to ascertain their comparative anesthetic properties.
He traveled to Europe to present his discoveries to the French Academy of Sciences, the Academy of Medicine, and the Parisian Medical Society in 1846. Throughout his experimentation, Wells’ personality radically altered due to the consistent inhalation of chemicals. In a negative mental state, Wells was arrested and jailed in New York City for an incident with a passerby. Wells died tragically in his jail cell on January 24, 1848. At the same time, the Paris Medical Society publicly declared Wells the discoverer of anesthetic gases.
The Paris Medical Society proclaimed that “Horace Wells of Hartford, USA, is due all the honors of having first discovered and successfully applied the uses of vapors or gases, whereby surgical operations could be performed without pain.” They also elected him an honorary member of the Society and awarded him an honorary medical degree.
While Wells’ story ended tragically, the Hartford Medical Society continues to remember his brilliance, creative thinking, and life’s work. Wells deeply cared about the feelings of his patients and made painful procedures worry-free and accessible.
Recognizing Our Past and Honoring Our Future
As Connecticut’s medical community comes together at our 2023 Award Celebration, we recognize the importance of honoring our past and future. Horace Wells was instrumental in medicine and made advances out of curiosity, passion, and devotion to the well-being of his patients.
The Horace Wells Humanitarian Awards embody the heart of our medical professionals, students, and residents: providing unyielding support to those in need. Our goal is to keep medical humanitarians motivated, thriving, and recognized for their indelible contributions to patients and our community.
Horace Wells was a key Connecticut figure that made a difference, and we will continue to honor his legacy and pave the way for new opportunities, milestones, and successes.
The Three Horace Wells Humanitarian Awards
The Distinguished Service Award recognizes an individual’s volunteer efforts in the Greater Hartford community. This award honors an individual’s impact on our community and commitment to making the Greater Hartford area a better place through volunteer work.
The Hartford’s Impact on The World Award recognizes an individual participating in humanitarian work for the global community through monetary donations, in-person humanitarian efforts, and the elevation of resources.
The Rising Practitioner Award recognizes a highly motivated medical student or resident for their leadership, excellence in research, innovation, teaching, and advocacy in the Greater Hartford community.
Do you know someone worthy of these awards? Submit your nomination today!
With Horace Wells in our memory, we are honored to continue recognizing future leaders in the field of medicine as they work to provide new insights and motivations to change the world.