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Dr. Crawford Williamson Long: Georgia's Medical Pioneer

October 9, 2014
Portrait of Dr. Crawford Long

We take many technologies and innovations for granted every day — cars, computers and modern medicine. After a gruesome visit to the dentist, one thing I can’t imagine living without is anesthesia. Luckily, a courageous Georgian doctor braved the frontier of making anesthesia common in medical practice.

Before the time of anesthetics, doctors would use alcohol or hypnotism when undertaking medical procedures — not ideal pain relievers or numbing agents.

In the 1830s, a young Georgia medical student became fascinated with the effects of nitrous oxide (commonly known as “laughing gas”) used by traveling showmen. He noticed that when people consumed this gas, they displayed no sense of pain when they fell down or bumped into things.

Later when he created his own medical practice, this young man, Crawford Williamson Long (1815-1878), began experimenting with a similar agent (and easier to obtain): sulfuric ether. He immediately began to notice promising results. On March 30, 1842 in Jefferson, Ga., Long used this ether in a surgical procedure to remove a tumor off one of his patient’s neck. It was an immediate success. His patient felt no pain during the surgery, and Long only charged him $2!

Long performed many more surgeries using anesthetic gases for years, but he never published his findings. He wanted to be absolutely positive that it worked — something that can be challenging in science with so many possible unintended consequences. However, even though he waited to officially publish his findings, he didn’t really go out of his way to keep his discovery a secret. Rumors began to spread that claimed he was practicing witchcraft!  

In December 1846, a dentist from Boston published an editorial in the Medical Examiner about using ether as an anesthetic. Then in January 1847, physicians published more articles about experiments with etherization. Long finally decided it was time to officially go public. In 1849 he presented his experiments to the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta. However, it was too late. Many others claimed to be the original ether discoverers (namely William Morton, Horace Wells and Charles Jackson) and Long never received recognition in his lifetime.

A year after his death, the National Eclectic Medical Association officially declared Long the discoverer of anesthesia, citing affidavits and notarized letters from Long’s former patients. 40 years later in 1920, the General Assembly created Long County from land of Liberty County in honor of Dr. Long. Today we celebrate March 30 as Doctors’ Day in honor of his first surgery removing the neck tumor. Lastly, Jefferson, Ga. houses the Crawford W. Long Museum, educating people about the life and career of Dr. Long. Georgia is very proud of our heroic medical pioneer!

To learn more about Dr. Long, feel free to check out the New Georgia Encyclopedia or go on a Capitol Museum Tour.

Photo Courtesy of the Capitol Museum

About the Author

Bethany McDaniel is the Interactive Web Content Manager for GeorgiaGov. She graduated from Berry College in Rome, GA with degrees in Visual Communication and History.

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