The Right Chemistry: Pivotal moments in the history of medicine

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It comes as no surprise that discoveries have caught the attention of filmmakers, who have been known to exercise some poetic licence.

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Any presentation on the history of medicine will include such pivotal moments as the introduction of anesthesia by William Morton in 1846 and the discovery of Salvarsan, the first truly effective antimicrobial agent, by Paul Ehrlich in 1909. Given the impact of these medical breakthroughs and their sometimes controversial history, it comes as no surprise that the discoveries caught the attention of filmmakers.

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1944’s The Great Moment and 1940’s Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet tackle the epic stories in an entertaining fashion, and get the science mostly right. I also like the portrayal of scientists as having lives outside the lab, and the narrative that discoveries do not come about from single eureka moments but rather from a mix of capitalization on previous work by others, fruitful collaborations and often a dose of luck.

The Great Moment is the story of dentist William Morton’s discovery of ether as an anesthetic, told in a series of flashbacks as Eben Frost, the first patient from whom Morton extracted a tooth using ether, reminisces about the experience with Morton’s widow. As the story evolves, we learn that Morton is interested in relieving pain, as a dentist would be, and becomes captivated by colleague Horace Wells’s somewhat successful use of nitrous oxide, or “laughing gas.” However, he is also aware of Wells’s failed attempt to demonstrate the gas to surgeon John Collins Warren and colleagues at Massachusetts General in Boston because he had not allowed enough time for the nitrous oxide to be properly absorbed.

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Morton wonders whether some other substance might be more reliable and seeks advice from Harvard chemistry professor Charles Jackson, who unfortunately is portrayed as somewhat of a mad scientist. Jackson tells Morton that he has had some experience with ethyl chloride as a numbing agent, but Morton mistakenly purchases a bottle of ether that he leaves on a table near the fireplace. As he is thumbing through a chemistry text, the bottle’s cork pops and he inhales the ether fumes and falls asleep. This gives him the idea of using ether as an anesthetic. There is considerable poetic licence taken here. Jackson actually recommended the use of ether and Morton being accidentally overcome is fiction.

In any case, Morton proceeds to extract a tooth from Frost without any sign of pain. This prompts him to approach surgeon Warren, declaring that he has something better than nitrous oxide. Although Warren, remembering the Wells fiasco, is skeptical, he agrees. But Morton had already filed a patent for an anesthetic as Letheon, without declaring its identity. The local Medical Society finds the use of an unknown substance unacceptable and does not allow it to be administered. When Morton finds out that Warren will then have to proceed with the amputation of a young girl’s leg without any anesthesia, he relents, and reveals the Letheon is ether. That leads to a happy, albeit fictional, end to the movie. In actual fact, the pivotal moment was on Oct. 16, 1846, when Warren successfully removed a tumour from the neck of Gilbert Abbott under ether anesthesia administered by Morton.

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The film accurately portrays, although in a strangely wacky fashion, the legal battle between Morton, Wells and Jackson over recognition as the legitimate inventor of anesthesia. However, history records that four years before Morton’s demonstration, Georgia physician Crawford Long had placed a towel saturated with ether over a patient’s mouth and successfully removed a tumour. He went on to carry out a number of amputations under ether anesthesia, but did not publish his work until 1849! Long is given a one-line passing reference in the film. The acting in The Great Moment is borderline comical, but the film does cast light on the fascinating history of anesthesia.

Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet recounts the events leading up to the introduction of Salvarsan, originally called 606, as the first truly effective drug against syphilis. The film accurately details how Ehrlich’s discovery was stimulated by the observation that certain synthetic dyes are preferentially absorbed by bacteria, making them more visible under the microscope. If some sort of toxin, such as arsenic, could be incorporated into such a dye, perhaps bacteria could be killed without harming other tissues. The only way to test this “magic bullet” theory was to try. With the help of Japanese researcher Sahachiro Hata, Ehrlich synthesizes a number of dye molecules incorporating arsenic. One of these effectively treats mice infected with syphilis, a widespread disease at the time. This compound had been coded as number 606, and is often mistakenly reported, and the film makes this error as well, that 605 experiments were carried out before the one that was found to be successful. But it is certainly true that 606 went on sale as Salvarsan with the name being coined from “safe arsenic.”

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At the time the film was made, movie subjects were governed by the Motion Picture Production Code, which had been introduced in 1930 and prohibited mention of “sex hygiene and venereal disease.” The film’s producers claimed that not addressing one of Ehrlich’s major discoveries was unfair to his legacy and managed to get approval providing that treatment of patients with syphilis was not shown and that advertising of the film would not mention the disease.

There was yet another controversy. Paul Ehrlich was Jewish and by 1940 the Nazis had expunged all references to his achievements. The United States had not yet entered the war and American films were popular in Germany. When screenwriter Norman Burnside pitched his idea for a film about Ehrlich, he wanted to address anti-Semitism, and reportedly hoped that making it known that a Jew had tamed the scourge of syphilis might help people to “persuade their hoodlum friends to keep their fists off Ehrlich’s co-religionists.” The producers decided that the film should stay clear of such issues and the words “Jew” or “Jewish” were never mentioned. Obviously, there’s more to movies than what we see on the screen.

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Joe Schwarcz is director of McGill University’s Office for Science & Society (mcgill.ca/oss). He hosts The Dr. Joe Show on CJAD Radio 800 AM every Sunday from 3 to 4 p.m. 

Note: This article has been updated to remove incorrect information from the photo caption.

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