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The American Society of Anesthesiologists is an educational, research and scientific association of physicians organized to raise and maintain the standards of the medical practice of anesthesiology and improve the care of the patient.


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April 1, 2013 Volume 77, Number 4
AHA 19th Spring Meeting: May 2-4, 2013, Hartford, Connecticut Manisha S. Desai, M.D.

Antonio Aponte-Feliciano, M.D.

Sukumar P. Desai, M.D.

Anesthesiologists may rightly wonder why they should bother to be familiar with the history of anesthesiology. After all, some feel it is unlikely that such information would lead to changes in clinical practice. History-related topics receive short shrift in the didactic curriculum of residency programs, and questions related to history have long disappeared from written and oral board examinations. Nonetheless, our specialty is the only one to have been discovered in the United States, and events that led up to this marvelous gift to mankind occurred within a very narrow time frame in the 1840s. Moreover, these events occurred in rural Georgia, upstate New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts. Many related sites and memorials are well preserved and open to the public. This fascination with history encourages us to accurately record events, preserve structures as well as artifacts, and gives occasion to celebrate great lives and achievements of the past. One cannot forget that each individual, family, society, institution, place and nation has a history. Humans are the only creature that are cognizant of their past. Our future is unknown while the present is evanescent – thus, everything that is known falls within the realm of history.

In the United States, the Anesthesia History Association (AHA) and the Wood Library-Museum of Anesthesiology (WLM) have taken the lead in preserving and promoting the history of anesthesiology. This year’s 19th Annual Spring Meeting of the AHA will be held at Hartford, Connecticut’s Downtown Marriott Hotel, located in historic Adriaen’s Landing. The area is named after Adriaen Block, a Dutch explorer who sailed up the Connecticut River in 1614 aboard the Onrust, the first American-built ship. The following year, he visited the small island off the coast of Rhode Island that would eventually bear his name and be called Block Island.

Anesthesia history enthusiasts are aware that although Crawford Williamson Long (1815-78) had been using ether in his practice in rural Georgia since 1842, he did not publish his findings until 1848, by which time Horace Wells (1815-48) and William Thomas Green Morton (1819-68), primarily the latter, had stolen the show. It has been quipped, “Long did Long have to wait for recognition.” New England boasts many sites and artifacts related to the history of our specialty:

  • The Ether Dome at Massachusetts General Hospital
  • Ether Monument at Boston Public Gardens
  • Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine, for viewing a famous oil painting by Robert C. Hinckley (1853-1949) depicting the first public use of ether
  • Mount Auburn Cemetery, where many principal contributors to the discovery of anesthesia are buried
  • The Morton homes in Charlton, Massachusetts, that were beautifully rendered as watercolors by Dr. Leroy D. Vandam (1914-2004)
  • And, of course, the many sites in Hartford, Connecticut.

  • The meeting will start on May 2, 2013 with a tour of several of these sites. We will begin with Bushnell Park (established in 1868), where a beautiful monument and statue of Horace Wells were erected in 1875. The sculptor was American artist Thomas Howard Bartlett (1835-1922), whose other famous known work is “The Wounded Drummer Boy of Shiloh.” Bushnell Park is named in honor of reverend Horace Bushnell (1802-76), who was greatly influential in securing the establishment of this park, the first public park in the United States.

    We next visit Cedar Hill Cemetery (established in 1868) to view Horace Wells’ burial site, beautifully adorned by works filled with allegory and symbolism. The cemetery is also the final resting place of firearms maker Samuel Colt (1814-62) who was an occasional itinerant demonstrator of the curious effects of nitrous oxide. Additional sites are a Tiffany stained glass window panel in The First Church of Christ in Hartford (built in 1739), and a plaque denoting the location of Horace Wells’ dental office.

    Lunch will be offered during a stop at the Connecticut Historical Society (founded in 1825), which houses many artifacts related to Horace Wells, including his personal diary, a death mask, and other personal effects. The first of several guest lectures, by William McDonnell, D.D.S., who is also our local guide, will be held during lunch. He is also an office bearer in the “Horace Wells Club” (founded in 1894, on the 50th anniversary of Wells’ partially successful demonstration of the anesthetic properties of nitrous oxide at Massachusetts General Hospital), an organization whose membership is limited to 40 practicing local dentists, and which strives to preserve and propagate interest in the history of anesthesia. Two sites related to significant American literary figures will also be included in the tour: Mark Twain House and Harriet Beecher Stowe Center. During the evening, a welcome reception will be held for delegates and accompanying guests on a cruise on the Connecticut River, aboard the Lady Katharine.

    The scientific sessions will be held on Friday, May 3, and the morning of Saturday, May 4. On Friday evening, our guest speaker will be renowned author, medical historian and Yale surgeon Sherwin Nuland. Among the many books he has written is the classic The Origins of Anesthesia. Another guest speaker is the author of many popular historical novels, including Ether Day, Julie Fenster. Although this book is now out of print, Ms. Fenster has agreed to help us with autographed sales from her personal collection. Rafael A. Ortega, M.D., Boston University anesthesiologist and author of Written in Granite: An Illustrated History of the Ether Monument, will also offer autographed sales.

    The program will end on Saturday, May 4, with a novel workshop/course, “Techniques in Historical Research,” offered for the first time by the AHA. Our aim is to help history enthusiasts not formally trained in historical research undertake their projects with a greater degree of academic rigor. It will also help attendees identify areas that could be explored, help them formulate their plans and offer suggestions on how to get their work published.

    This meeting should provide everyone, history enthusiast or otherwise, a great opportunity to visit Hartford and explore sites related to the history of our specialty. At the same time, it offers interested individuals an opportunity to present their work, meet renowned authors and learn how to conduct history-related research. We are delighted to welcome and encourage one and all to attend. Join us to tour, to present your work and to learn; but most important, we want you to have fun!

    Additional information at

    Manisha S. Desai, M.D. is Clinical Associate Professor of Anesthesiology, University of Massachusetts Medical School, Worcester, Massachusetts.

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