In the beginning there was ether.
Not at the beginning of time, but at the birth of modern anesthesia and commercialized medicine there was ether. This, at least, is how award-winning playwright Elizabeth Egloff sees one of the most important discoveries in the history of medicine.
The world premiere of her newest play, Ether Dome, opens the Alley Theatre's 65th season with a complex portrait of the human drama behind a medical sea change. Ether Dome started its previews Friday night (with more previews set for Saturday and Sunday) before officially opening on Wednesday for a run that lasts through Oct. 9. Named for the amphitheater at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston where the uses of ether were first demonstrated, the play is a commission of Hartford Stage and is directed by Michael Wilson.
Ether may be colorless and tasteless, but its effects were profound. Imagine most surgical procedures with nothing more than opiates and a wooden stick to bite down on. There to usher a simultaneously miraculous and fragile compound, ether, into use in 1865 were a Hartford dentist and a medical student con man, Horace Wells and William Morton respectively, and even more drama than occasioned by modern day health care debates.
The impact of ether is sobering to consider in the shadow of the Texas Medical Center, an institution itself nearly the same age as the Alley Theatre.
Wells and Morton weren't exactly the toast of Europe, but readers across the Atlantic couldn't get enough of what is now the disastrous back story to the discovery of the surgical uses of ether. Wells began as Morton's mentor and then became his friend and practically family before Morton, a con man wanted in fourteen states, betrayed him.
"It started as a student-teacher relationship," Egloff told CultureMap in a recent interview. "It seems to have become a father-student relationship. There was a great love for each other. William betrayed Horace and I think that had something to do with Horace’s addictions and demise."
Indeed, after Morton successfully demonstrated the uses of ether and claimed credit for its discovery, Wells spiraled into depression, imbalance and addiction before being jailed for throwing sulfuric acid at two prostitutes.
"Horace was a sensitive idealist," Egloff said, "and Morton was in it for the money. But in the beginning, Morton lived with Horace and was part of the family. Anywhere you look in this play there’s a father-son relationship. We see young men looking for a father figure, and the medical competition destroys the relationship."
Some believe that the sensational headlines about medical experimentation gone wrong inspired Robert Louis Stevenson's famous novel Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. "It was a scandal that people couldn't get enough of," Egloff confirmed. "The idea of this doctor experimenting with gas, this very proper doctor turning into a monster and attacking women and killing himself."
Betrayal may be the motor of human drama in Ether Dome, but for Egloff, it couldn't be more pertinent to contemporary conflicts about the nature and the finance of medical practices.
"This is the first case of a patent battle, of commercialized medicine," Egloff stated, and of a pharmacist telling a hospital what to do. "By the end of the play, you see the emergence of the modern hospital where the pharmaceutical companies have a lot of control over what doctors can do. Until this time, there was a strict code of ethics. Normally, something this important would have been freely distributed."
The impact of ether is sobering to consider in the shadow of the Texas Medical Center, an institution itself nearly the same age as the Alley Theatre. Consider that this array of medical institutions covers as much areas as the inner Loop of Chicago, employs nearly 100,000 people, brings $14 billion to the region and logs six million patient visits every year. And it's still growing.
Egloff might argue all this flows from the discovery of ether. And while this discovery was a godsend for people suffering all manner of ailments, it also implied endless growth.
" By the end of the play, you see the emergence of the modern hospital where the pharmaceutical companies have a lot of control over what doctors can do," Egloff said.
"Once ether was worked into the routines of surgery," Egloff explained, "surgery was better and patients got better," she said. "They needed beds so patients should recover. Suddenly, they needed more beds and more supplies and more nurses. Everybody wanted surgery so they needed more doctors. The budgets for these hospitals grew exponentially and they became like businesses."
Ether was not only a source of professional drama and medical controversy in mid-nineteenth-century America, but it also sparked religious debate. To many, Egloff said, "It didn't seem right to have pain relief. The Bible says you suffer for your sins. Your ability to suffer like Jesus is a measure of your worth as a Christian. That was a tremendous force against using ether. There were doctors spitting like wildfire who would not use it because it went against their ethics."
A person or an event can emerge as a crossroads not usually recognized until much later in history. Ether Dome tracks the intersection of so many complex issues for contemporary life, it might be subtitled Love Hate Theft Betrayal Innovation Science Medicine God. Maybe in the end, then, ether is most easily understood as a religious mystery. "Even now, anesthesiologists don't know exactly how anesthesia works. They don't have a clear idea of the process, but it seems to work."
And where would we be without anesthesia? Egloff laughed and said, "I'd be the first person to say, 'Thank God!' "