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Chapter 11

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Year of Decision

by
Bernard DeVoto

published by Little, Brown and Company,
Boston, 1943

The text is in the public domain.

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and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
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Chapter 12
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p328  Interlude:
Friday, October 16

Under the Bulfinch dome of the Massachusetts General Hospital, the young gentlemen of the Harvard Medical School shuffled their feet, wondering what was up and why it didn't happen. It was certainly important, for the biggest men in their profession were gathered round the professor of surgery, Dr. John Collins Warren. Here were Dr. Henry J. Bigelow, Dr. J. Mason Warren, Dr. Samuel Parkman, Dr. Gould, Dr. Hayward, and Dr. Townsend, all dressed in the morning coats proper to the practice of their profession. Dr. Warren looked angry, kept glancing at his watch, and muttered something to Dr. Hayward and Dr. Bigelow. He was saying waspishly that since Dr. Morton had not arrived it must be presumed that he was otherwise engaged. But the young gentlemen in the amphitheater seats could not hear that and went on discussing the array of notables. They paid no particular attention to the patient who had been prepared for operation, a young man named Gilbert Abbott who was in the red plush chair with a sheet thrown over it, his arms and legs strapped down. It was just an operation, apparently. The young gentlemen had seen many before it in this well-lighted room with its ancient mummy case and its white cast of Apollo.

Dr. Warren put up his watch again, decisively this time. But another gentleman, whom some recognized as Dr. William Morton, a dentist, came in hastily and murmured an apology to Dr. Warren. Dr. Morton was carrying a piece of philosophical apparatus, which he explained in low tones to Dr. Warren. The young gentlemen saw it as a glass plate with projecting tubes or arms. It was about half full of a colorless liquid.

Dr. Warren came forward and addressed the medical students. He said that there was a gentleman present who claimed to have made a discovery which would produce insensibility to pain during surgical operations. As the class knew, Dr. Warren had always regarded the condition as an important desideratum in operative surgery. Therefore he had decided to permit the experiment they were about to witness.

The patient, Dr. Warren explained, was suffering from a vascular tumor of the neck on the left side, occupying the spaces from the edge  p329 of the jaw downward to the larynx and from the angle of the jaw to the median line. They could see it and diagnose it from where they sat.

Dr. Morton, the experimenter, put the long tube of his apparatus in the patient's mouth, told him to inhale, and asked one of the notables to hold his nostrils shut. Tension came into the airy room. The doctors bent forward; the students felt their muscles getting tight; Dr. Morton crouched before the patient, watching him closely. In between four and five minutes the patient, after some heaving and struggling, seemed to go to sleep. "Dr. Warren, your patient is ready," Dr. Morton said, and withdrew the apparatus. Dr. Warren made an incision about three inches long over the center of the tumor, through the skin and subcutaneous cellular tissue, and removed a layer of fascia which covered the enlarged blood vessels. He then passed a curved needle, with ligature, under and around the tumor and exerted considerable pressure. The growth came out and Dr. Warren closed the incision.

The patient appeared to be sleeping quietly, but just before the operation was completed moved and twitched a little and muttered indistinctly. Presently he awoke. He was asked if he had suffered any pain. No, he said, but he had felt a dim sensation, as if his neck were being scraped with a blunt instrument.

The class sat back and flexed their muscles. "Gentlemen," Dr. Warren said, "this is no humbug."


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