An excerpt from
The Strange and True Tale of Horace Wells, Surgeon Dentist
By Michael Downs
Inside the office, a wooden curtain separated the surgery space from a waiting area and its three cushioned chairs. The décor was spartan, with two live songbirds in a cage, though Colton didn’t know what sort. He found Wells in a dentist’s chair, swinging his arms and jabbering as if in debate with the fellow who crouched at the hearth and worked a bellows to draw a healthier flame. Wells’s jacket lay open, and his shirt was unbuttoned to below his sternum. That crab-apple lump still swelled between cheek and gum. Beside him stood a taboret, on which rested a polished silver pitcher and a silver cup sitting atop a book.
“Colton!” said Wells, pointing across the room. “We have the Holy Book for my oath, and here: your ten dollars.”
The man who worked the fire wore an apron. His eyes were deep-set and heavy with what might have been concern or religion or both, and he wore something on his face that wanted to be called a beard but wasn’t quite. Trimmed and shaved in a strange way. All chin and no chops. Some new fashion. Colton wouldn’t dare it.
“Hands on the Bible, then, both of you. Swear that my name not be connected with you tomfools.”
So they did. Then Wells introduced the man in the apron, Dr. John Mankey Riggs, Wells’s one-time student, who now owned his own practice.
“Riggs’s progress in periodontitis is excellent,” Wells said. “I trust him in all things. He will remove my afflicted molar while I lie here entranced through the properties of your gas.”
Colton sparked a match and lit his cigar. “Do you have oxygen on hand?”
Wells’s look showed his confusion.
Colton said, “Haven’t you read Davy’s notes? On nitrous oxide?”
“I’m not a chemist, Dr. Colton.”
Colton spit a tobacco leaf. Provincial men. “Oxygen speeds recovery from the effects of the gas,” he said. “Should you breathe too much and your life become endangered, oxygen could save you.”
Wells lifted a hand as if to scratch at his cheek, then lowered it. “We don’t have time for that,” he said.
“Let me repeat my warnings. You could become violent,” said Colton. “Your intellectual capacity could be permanently limited.”
“And you,” Colton said to Riggs. “Davy’s studies weren’t exhaustive. We can’t fathom all that might happen when a man fills his lungs with so much nitrous oxide. Perhaps his gums will bleed until his mouth is a cup of blood and his windpipe a siphon to his lungs. Perhaps he falls into a catalepsy, muttering and delirious, to all appearances awake but his eyes unseeing. You don’t know.” He laughed. “Maybe he’ll piss blue.”
“The atmosphere of the highest heaven? Right and good. Make me a temporary angel.”
Riggs straightened his apron, untied and retied the knot in the back to a tighter crease. He said to Wells, “It needn’t be you. There is the charity hospital. Negroes. We could begin with the incurables at the Hartford Retreat.”
“My gum swells, Riggs, and the tooth aches. It must come out anyway. If there are dangers associated with my theories, no one should bear them but myself.”
Then Wells motioned to Colton with the fingers of his upturned hand as a scholar demands a theme from a student. “What lines from the poet did you quote in your advertisement?” he asked. “The atmosphere of the highest heaven? Right and good. Make me a temporary angel, Mr. Colton.”
Colton handed over the bladder full of gas. He explained again how to use the faucet, then stepped to the side as would an actor who has finished his role. For the first time, he considered the possibility that the dentist’s theory might be right. Wouldn’t that be something? Seating himself near the caged birds, he found, to his surprise, some admiration for the man’s gumption.
Wells adjusted the bladder in his lap as if wanting the gas itself to feel at ease. He placed his mouth over the faucet, turned the key, and inhaled.
“Count ten,” said Colton.
Wells did, then exhaled. He inhaled again. Another ten count.
Then Wells stopped holding his breath or turning the key. He breathed back into the bladder, inhaled from it, breathed again into it, his mouth tight over the faucet. Colton counted breaths, and at six jumped from his chair.
“That’s enough!” he said. “We agreed to six.” He seized the bladder, cranked the key to shut the faucet. With a hand to Wells’s brow, Riggs lifted the heavy head away from the spigot and set it to rest against the padded pillow of the chair.
Wells’s skin had blanched like the scales of a fish belly, so his red hair seemed even more like flame. He blinked, his blue eyes shifted, lids half closed but the eyes still seeming to see. But see what? The pupils lazed about, sometimes settling on an object, then moving in the direction of another: from open drawer in the tool chest to a green-glass bottle of chemical to a fleur-de-lis pattern in the wallpaper. Riggs placed a fingertip against Wells’s neck.
“His pulse is tranquil,” he said. “The beats spread widely but with regularity.”
Colton pushed his knuckles into his own brow with such force he left his skin mottled pink. “Is he awake? Is he asleep?”
Though Wells’s eyes remained open, he appeared unaware, helpless. “Neither asleep nor awake, I think.”
Colton waved his hands in front of Wells’s placid face. “Open your mouth!” he shouted.
Wells opened his mouth.
“He’s not deaf,” said Riggs, less reproach to Colton than a note to himself. He reached for the tooth key, crouched near Wells’s face. “Open wider,” he said. Wells did.
In the next moment, Riggs found the tooth, secured the key. He felt his own pulse jump. “Shouldn’t someone hold his arms?” he asked.
“Just pull,” said Colton. “Now.”
Riggs tightened his fist on the handle, gasped as he yanked.
Nothing else happened. Wells lay in his chair, his expression unchanged.
“Not even a flinch,” said Riggs.
The men stood a moment, watching for some other reaction. As if by reflex, Riggs wiped Wells’s blood and saliva from his fingers onto his apron. Then he presented the bloody molar to Colton. Riggs’s whole arm trembled, and the molar shook in the air like some strange moth in a light.
He clapped his hands once, then let them fall, benumbed birds alighting in his lap.
Riggs whispered near Wells’s ear. “What do you feel?”
Wells’s lips moved like an infant’s in its sleep…
It had begun, Horace would later remember, with a tingling. He had made a mental note.
Tips of fingers.
Tips of toes.
Then numbness overtook his limbs. He thought to tap his foot, to lift it at the ankle and tap his shoe sole against the floor. Strange, this part, because he sensed no subsequent movement. Given that his mind was a scientific mind, he did not assume that an absence of a sense of movement proved failure to move. Perhaps his foot had tapped but he hadn’t felt the sensations of tapping. Perhaps absence of pain required absence of all feeling. Perhaps. Perhaps his son Charley could learn to tap dance. He should ask Riggs. He thought to say, “Might Charley make a good tap dancer?” but again, he sensed no movement in his mouth. But he felt something. Or his head did. Whichever it was, he approved. His body became waves – waves instead of legs, waves instead of arms, waves instead of lungs, the weightless pleasure of waves. He experienced something like a laugh, but it was the laugh of soul rather than body. So the two – soul and body – are separate after all! What a thing to discover! What else? He could hear. A pulsing beat, a sound the color of gold. A beat that sounded as if it rang from inside the bell of the world. Ah, the church bell of Creation. The heartbeat of God. He looked around. The room expanded. Or rather, Horace shrank. Or rather, the room expanded. Somewhere he heard a sharpening wheel, and he saw its sparks spray into the air. What ecstasy to be a spark in this universe, one of an infinity of sparks, all brilliant, all in flight. A spark streaked by his face, and it spoke to him in a voice like God’s. “Open your mouth,” said the spark, and Horace imagined his mouth opening, and perhaps it did or did not but did it matter? Brilliant and humble and in flight! Rapture!…
And then, he felt himself breathing. His lungs, no longer waves, had become lungs again. He blinked and saw blinding brightness. He felt the blink. He held his eyes shut a moment. The pulse that had been God’s heartbeat seemed now to be a throbbing, as if it were a visitor knocking on his forehead with two knuckles. His mouth tasted of iron. His tongue felt leaden. Still, it moved at his bidding, sort of, so he explored his mouth and found a hole along his gum line where he remembered no hole. He opened his eyes, and in the brightness he saw Riggs in his apron. Riggs held a tooth key, and lodged in the key was a tooth. It looked to him white as could be, as if polished, as if it were the tooth of an angel.
“Did you feel it, Wells? Did you feel the tooth pull?”
He had not. He had not, and even as he felt tired, wanting to sleep, the awareness that the angel tooth Riggs held was his own sparked through him. He tasted blood and tongued the spot where his sore tooth had been, felt its emptiness, and even the pressure of his tongue in the hollow space felt as no more than a caress.
He clapped his hands once, then let them fall, benumbed birds alighting in his lap.
Thus does the map of the known world widen and its mysteries multiply.
From The Strange and True Tale of Horace Wells, Surgeon Dentist, published May 2018 by Acre Books. Copyright Michael Downs, 2018. Headshot of Michael courtesy of Leslie F. Miller.
Michael Downs is the author of three books, most recently a novel that retells the story of the American dentist widely credited with introducing general anesthesia to the world. Learn more about him and his work at www.michael-downs.net.