I Awaken to Glory

I Awaken to Glory

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Wolfe, Richard J., and Leonard F. Menczer, eds., 1994, xvii + 442pp.

Horace Wells has come to be viewed over the years as an enigmatic figure. Owing to his death by suicide in early 1848, and his inability to participate in the debate that soon erupted over credit for the discovery of anesthesia, the literature on him is confused, fragmentary, and incomplete. While he is considered by some to have been the most benevolent and ethically correct participant in the early anesthesia story, an idealist who believed that anesthesia should be “as free as the air we breath,” he has been characterized by others as “volatile,” “erratic,” “errant,” and “wayward.”

In 1991, three years before the celebration of the sesquicentennial of Wells's discovery of inhalation anesthesia, the contributors to this volume decided that it was high time to dig deeper into the literature on Wells and on the early anesthesia controversy and attempt to present an accurate account of Wells and his role in ushering in the era of modern anesthesia. Out of their research has emerged I Awaken To Glory, a compilation of twelve essays that not only present a clearer picture of Wells’s efforts in bringing about painless surgery, but also delve into many aspects of his life and character that have been largely ignored.

The initial essay in I Awaken to Glory reviews the period between 1800, when Humphry Davy suggested that nitrous oxide gas might prove useful in alleviating pain during surgical operations, and 1844, when Horace Wells was first to put Davy’s observation to the test. It explores why it took forty-four years for this event to happen, and then reviews and explicates the momentous circumstances that afterwards led to the introduction of anesthesia into surgery. Two succeeding essays describe and analyze Horace Wells’s dental practice for the very first time, also presenting in transcribed form his “Day Book A,” perhaps the most complete record extant of dental office transactions in the United States at mid-century. Three essays discuss some of the people who played an integral part in Wells’s life: his wife Elizabeth; John M. Riggs, who performed on Wells the first operation under nitrous oxide anesthesia; and Christopher Starr Brewster, the American dentist in Paris who espoused Wells’s cause in France. Other essays are devoted to Wells’s twentieth-century biographer, W. Harry Archer, who, with his wife, preserved the manuscripts that remain the chief sources for documenting Horace Wells’s life; the reception of Wells’s discovery in Great Britain; the pictorial inconography of Wells; and his depictions in sculpture and three dimensional art. A number of portraits of Wells and his wife within have not been reproduced before, and several important documents also appear in print for the very first time.

With the publication of I Awaken to Glory we now have more perfect reconstruction of Wells the discoverer, Wells the scientist, Wells the inventor, Wells the dentist, Wells the humanist, and last, but not least Wells the man. The materials in this volume combine with W. Harry Archer’s “Life and Letters of Horace Wells” to comprise the definitive documentation of Wells and his extraordinary contribution to medicine.