Museum and Ether Dome Offer Insights Into the Hospital’s History

(Editor’s note: This summer, the Mass General Research Institute has two communications interns working with us as we work to highlight all of the research that takes place across Massachusetts General Hospital. Here is a post from our intern Milo Goodman.)

One major highlight of my first week as a Communications Intern was visiting the Massachusetts General Hospital Ether Dome and the Paul S. Russell, MD, Museum of Medical History and Innovation alongside Alyssa, the other summer Communications Intern here at the Research Institute.

Our aim was to familiarize ourselves with the rich history of medical innovation that has taken place at Mass General throughout its existence since its founding over 200 years ago.

We also planned on taking a few photographs for social media purposes to encourage members of the general public to come and see the sights for themselves.

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An official National Historic Landmark, The Mass General Ether Dome was previously used as a surgical amphitheater between 1821 and 1867 and is famous for being the site of the first demonstration of an operation using ether as a general anesthetic in 1846.

The Dome is located in the Bulfinch Building, which is on the hospital’s main campus on Fruit Street, and is open weekdays from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm. In addition to its ties to the history of anesthesia, the room contains a skeleton, a collection of 19th century surgical instruments, and Padihershef, an Egyptian mummy that was donated to the hospital in 1823.

Today, the Ether Dome serves as a meeting place for medical professionals to hold conferences and presentations as well as an educational experience for anyone with an interest in its history.

After visiting the Ether Dome, we made our way down the street to visit the Russell Museum. The Russell Museum was named for Dr. Paul S. Russell, one of the most well-known pioneers in the field of transplant surgery and the chair of the Massachusetts General Hospital History Committee.

The museum is free and open to the public, and specially trained docents are available to provide tours.

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A few memorable highlights were the white marble sculpture of Dr. John Collins Warren and the array of historic medical tools including the infamous Bigelow Operating Chair, which was built in 1854.

Dr. Warren, one of the co-founders of Mass General and the Dean of Harvard Medical School, was actually the one who performed the first surgery under anesthesia in the Ether Dome in 1846.

When the operation was complete and the patient confirmed that he had felt no pain, Warren infamously announced the efficacy of ether with the proclamation that it “is no humbug.”

The original ether inhaler as well as the ether-soaked sponge from that day are showcased in the museum.

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The Bigelow Operating Chair (above) was created in light of this discovery; it was the first of its kind without restraints and had ivory and wooden handles that could be used to position the unconscious, anesthetized patient.

The chair quickly fell out of use over the next few decades, however, as it was made from leather rather than metal, which can be sterilized more easily.

I was thrilled to learn more about the innovative discoveries made at Mass General since its inception. Witnessing the tools of medical breakthroughs firsthand was a great experience that made me even more excited and proud to be working at the Mass General Research Institute this summer!

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