Abstract

In late 1846, following his successful public demonstrations of surgical anesthesia, Boston dentist William T. G. Morton selected Letheon as the commercial name for the ether-based “preparation” he had used to produce insensibility to pain. We have not identified a first-hand account of the coinage of Letheon. Although the name ultimately derives from the Greek Lēthē, the adjective Lethean, much in use in the mid-19th century, may have influenced Morton and those he called on to assist in finding a commercial name. By one unverified account, the name Letheon might have been coined independently by both Augustus Addison Gould, M.D., and Henry Jacob Bigelow, M.D.

Speed on the ship! But let her bear

No merchandise of sin,

No groaning cargo of despair

Her roomy hold within;

No Lethean drug for Eastern lands,

Nor poison-draught for ours;

But honest fruits of toiling hands

And Nature’s sun and showers.

—“The Ship-Builders” (1846), by John Greenleaf Whittier (1807–1892).

Seeking to commercialize the discovery of etherization in 1846, Boston dentist William T. G. Morton (1819–1868; fig. 1)1  applied for a patent and then selected the trade name Letheon for his narcotic preparation. Letheon was essentially sulfuric (diethyl) ether, with a fragrance and a coloring agent. Almost from the outset, questions arose about the validity of Morton’s patent and whether he should profit from it.

Fig. 1.

William T. G. Morton, M.D. (1819–1868). An engraved portrait published in 1847 in the first edition of Edward Warren’s pamphlet Some Account of the Letheon; Or, Who was the Discoverer?1  Image reproduced with the permission of Yale University, Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medical Library, New Haven, Connecticut.

Fig. 1.

William T. G. Morton, M.D. (1819–1868). An engraved portrait published in 1847 in the first edition of Edward Warren’s pamphlet Some Account of the Letheon; Or, Who was the Discoverer?1  Image reproduced with the permission of Yale University, Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medical Library, New Haven, Connecticut.

Historians have focused a good deal on Morton’s character, his patent, and his disputes with dentists and physicians. Relatively little has been written about the coinage of the word Letheon itself, probably because its easy derivation from the Greek lēthē (forgetfulness, oblivion) has long been assumed. But who actually coined the name, when, and under what circumstances? What lay behind this particular linguistic tease? In fact, the mid-19th century was alive with language study, wordplay, neologisms, and inquiries into the origins of language itself. When Morton sought to advertise his discovery to a surprised and curious public, he welcomed the help of physicians who were trained in the classical canon. They presented Morton with a signature term designed to turn heads and arrest attention. We offer here an examination of the etymology of Letheon in light of 19th-century notions of verbal play and linguistic inquiries.

Boston, Massachusetts: October 1846

On October 16, 1846, Morton administered his then-undisclosed anesthetic preparation to a surgical patient at the Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, Massachusetts. The hospital’s senior visiting surgeon, John Collins Warren, M.D. (1778–1856; Hersey Professor of Anatomy and Surgery, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts), operated on a congenital vascular malformation in the neck of his patient, Edward Gilbert Abbott.2  According to Henry Jacob Bigelow, M.D. (1818–1890), a recently appointed surgeon at the hospital, the patient “muttered, as in a semi-conscious state,” afterward stating that “the pain was considerable, though mitigated…as though the skin had been scratched with a hoe.”3  The etherization for this relatively minor operation was nevertheless considered a partial success. This was the first public demonstration of surgical etherization.

Although some observers of Morton’s historic demonstration had detected the smell of sulfuric ether, they were not certain that it was the active ingredient in Morton’s preparation. Most would have known, of course, that ether was a widely used chemical solvent. Bigelow reported he himself “undertook a number of experiments, with the view of ascertaining the nature of this new agent,” going on to say the “first experiment was with sulphuric ether, the odor of which was readily recognized in the preparation employed by Dr. Morton.”3  We should note, though, that Bigelow’s article on etherization was published in mid-November when the surgeons at the Massachusetts General Hospital were aware of the identity of Morton’s preparation.

On October 27, just eleven days after Morton’s demonstration, a joint patent application was signed by Morton and Charles T. Jackson, M.D. (1805–1880; Boston physician, chemist, and geologist). Immediately thereafter, Jackson assigned his financial rights in the patent to Morton. Although Jackson was no longer working as a physician (he had ceased practicing medicine a decade earlier), he continued to instruct medical students. As a member of the Massachusetts Medical Society, Jackson was not permitted to deal in secret remedies or profit from medical inventions. The initial agreement was for Morton to pay Jackson $500 for assistance and advice rendered.4 

Boston, Massachusetts: November 1846

Contrary to claims in some historical accounts, Morton did not attempt to disguise the preparation he used on October 16, 1846, by calling it Letheon. The word Letheon does not appear in United States Patent No. 4848 (“Improvement in Surgical Operations”), which was granted to Jackson and Morton on November 12, 1846. This suggests that the name was adopted after the patent application had been signed on October 27, 1846.

Morton’s patent lawyer, Robert H. Eddy (1812–1887), received official notice of the granting of the patent on Saturday, November 14, 1846.4  The next day, Eddy attended a meeting at the Tremont Street home of Augustus Addison Gould, M.D. (1805–1866; Boston physician, entomologist, and conchologist). Also present were Bigelow, Morton, and Jackson.4  Bigelow’s manuscript, “Insensibility During Surgical Operations Produced by Inhalation,” which he intended to place in The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, received the approval of both Morton and Jackson; the manuscript would be published three days later.3  As in the patent application, the name Letheon does not appear in Bigelow’s article. Eddy commented that Bigelow, even at this late date, did make some changes “particularly at the latter part of the article”4 ; presumably, he could have included the name Letheon at that point had the name been decided. In fact, Bigelow skirts mentioning any particular name, saying only that the “application of the process to the performance of surgical operations, is, it will be conceded, new” before entering into a defense of patent rights and “the actual position of this invention as regards the public.”3  Speaking to the testy relationship between Morton and Jackson, Eddy reported departing with Jackson, leaving Gould, Morton, and Bigelow behind. Though there is nothing to indicate that they discussed a name for Morton’s new preparation, the possibility exists that Morton, Bigelow, or Gould might have broached the subject after Eddy and Jackson departed.

Soon thereafter, hoping to advertise the success of his endeavors, Morton enlisted the help of physician friends to come up with a commercial name for his preparation. He approached Bigelow and Gould, and probably consulted Oliver Wendell Holmes, M.D. (1809–1894), a Boston physician, poet, and author. In their published accounts of Morton’s activities, neither Edward Warren (Some Account of the Letheon, 1847) nor Nathan P. Rice, M.D. (Trials of a Public Benefactor, 1859) recorded the date on which Morton selected the name Letheon. The two accounts differ in some particulars and neither hints at the full list of names that might have been proposed for Morton’s new preparation. Later reminiscences penned by Gould’s daughter5  and Morton’s wife6  do little to illuminate the matter. Regardless, though, of who might have proposed or advanced one name or another, all were willing to participate in what would essentially be a commercial venture, even if no one other than Morton might actually profit from it. Further, all would have known by then that the prime constituent of Morton’s preparation was sulfuric ether.

By the month’s end, readers of The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal would see a short notice posted by Morton advising that “a name for this new operation” (i.e., the administration of his “compound” to produce insensibility to pain) would shortly be forthcoming. Moreover, Morton would enter a short-lived partnership with the esteemed Boston physician and dentist Nathan C. Keep, M.D., D.D.S. (1800–1875). Both Morton’s notice and his alliance with Keep bear on our present inquiries.

The Origin of the Name Letheon

It is by now a critical commonplace to note that the name Letheon derives from the Greek word Λήθη, transliterated as Lēthē (pronounced LEE-thee) or simply Lethe, the name in Greek mythology of both the river of forgetfulness (fig. 2) and the goddess of forgetfulness. Such a notion suffices well enough. But while Lēthē was undoubtedly the foundational root of Letheon, other factors might have informed the 19th-century coinage, chief among them the common adjective Lethean (inducing forgetfulness and oblivion), a word that enjoyed great currency at the time but is largely forgotten today.

Fig. 2.

Dante submerged in the River Lethe by Matilda. Illustration by Gustave Doré (1832–1883) for Dante’s The Divine Comedy: Purgatory, Canto XXXI. From: Purgatory and Paradise. Translated by Henry Francis Cary. Edited by Henry C. Walsh. Philadelphia: Henry Altemus, [no publication or copyright date; ca. 1889], opp. p. 148. Image source Internet Archive. Book source University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Illinois.

Fig. 2.

Dante submerged in the River Lethe by Matilda. Illustration by Gustave Doré (1832–1883) for Dante’s The Divine Comedy: Purgatory, Canto XXXI. From: Purgatory and Paradise. Translated by Henry Francis Cary. Edited by Henry C. Walsh. Philadelphia: Henry Altemus, [no publication or copyright date; ca. 1889], opp. p. 148. Image source Internet Archive. Book source University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Illinois.

Lethe: The River, a Goddess, and a Butterfly

Lethe is defined by Liddell and Scott (1889, p. 889) as “a forgetting, forgetfulness” and, in the post-Homeric period, “a place of oblivion in the lower world.” A Greek fragment sometimes attributed to Simonides of Cos (ca. 556–467 B.C.E.) refers to “the house of Lethe” (www.attalus.org/poetry/simonides.html) near the Acheron, the underworld River of Pain or Woe. The concluding section of Plato’s Republic (ca. 400 B.C.E.), sometimes referred to as the Myth of Er (Book 10, parts 614a–621d), identifies Lethe as the plain of forgetfulness through which flowed the river of Lethe or Ameles potamos, the river of “unmindfulness” (forgetfulness). The well-sourced online “Theoi Project” (www.theoi.com) notes that “LETHE was the underworld river of oblivion and its goddess. The shades of the dead drank of its waters to forget their mortal lives…. The river-goddess Lethe was sometimes identified with the daimona [or ‘spirit’] Lethe, forgetfulness personified.” Louise H. Pratt, Professor of Classics at Emory University, usefully extends the discussion, observing how, besides amnesia, Lethe can be associated more broadly with “an absence of awareness.”7  But keeping within the groupings of Greek gods and goddesses, Lethe (a child of Eris, or Strife) came to be associated with the minor Olympian god Nyx (Night), the latter’s consort Erebus (Darkness), and their children Hypnos (Sleep) and Thanatos (Death). In a well-known engraving for Homer’s Iliad prepared by Tommaso Piroli (ca. 1752–1824) after the design by British sculptor and illustrator John Flaxman (1755–1826), Hypnos and Thanatos convey the body of the slain Sarpedon, son of Zeus and distinguished protector of Troy, to his homeland of Lycia (fig. 3).

Fig. 3.

Sleep [Hypnos] and Death [Thanatos] conveying the body of Sarpedon to Lycia. Engraved by Tommaso Piroli (ca. 1752–1824) from a drawing by John Flaxman (1755–1826) for Homer’s Iliad. From: Church AJ. Stories from Homer. London: Seeley, Jackson and Halliday, 1878, opp. p. 116. Image source Hathi Trust. Book source University of California Libraries. Digitized by Internet Archive.

Fig. 3.

Sleep [Hypnos] and Death [Thanatos] conveying the body of Sarpedon to Lycia. Engraved by Tommaso Piroli (ca. 1752–1824) from a drawing by John Flaxman (1755–1826) for Homer’s Iliad. From: Church AJ. Stories from Homer. London: Seeley, Jackson and Halliday, 1878, opp. p. 116. Image source Hathi Trust. Book source University of California Libraries. Digitized by Internet Archive.

The works of Greek and Roman writers, with which 19th-century literati like Drs. Gould, Bigelow, and Holmes would have been more than familiar, refer more to the river Lethe than to the goddess. The Roman poet Ovid (43 B.C.E. to 17/18 C.E.), for instance, finds the river flowing through the cave of Hypnos, god of sleep: “There silence dwells: only the lazy stream / Of Lethe… / O’er pebbly shallows trickling lulls to sleep.” (Metamorphoses, Bk. XI, lines 604–606, trans. Melville, 1986). The reference is echoed by Geoffrey Chaucer (ca. 1343–1400), who, in his poem, “The House of Fame” (“Hous of Fame”, ca. 1379), invokes “the god of slepe anoon, / That dwelleth in a cave of stoon / Upon a streem that comth fro Lete, / That is a flood of helle unswete;” (Bk.1, lines 69–72, ed. Walter W. Skeat, 1899).

The reading public would more likely have encountered allusions to Lethe in everything from Shakespearean plays to homespun stories and poems. William Shakespeare (1564–1616) used the word at least half a dozen times, playing on its meaning to gain a richly lyrical quality as he moves from mention of “a Lethe’d dullness” (Anthony and Cleopatra 2.1.27) to “the Lethe of thy angry soul” in which to drown one’s sad remembrance (Richard III 4.4.252) to “duller shouldst thou be than the fat weed / That roots itself in ease on Lethe wharf” (Hamlet 1.5.32–33). The celebrated Washington Irving (1783–1859), in Abbotsford and Newstead Abbey (1835), includes a character who implores, “Away! away! my early dream / Remembrance never must awake: / Oh! where is Lethe’s fabled stream?” Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864), in his tale, “A Select Party,” from the popular Mosses from an Old Manse (1846), describes how, at the behest of a congenial host, “the love-lorn, the care-worn, and the sorrow-stricken, were supplied with brimming goblets of Lethe.” The narrator of a poem by Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849) sketches a typically dark landscape while standing “beneath the mystic moon”: “Looking like Lethe, see! the lake / A conscious slumber seems to take, / And would not, for the world, awake. / All Beauty sleeps!” (“The Sleeper,” 1845 version). Not all references were as innocent. A bit of dully feather-brained erotica, the comic novel entitled A Voyage to Lethe (1741), authored by the redoubtable “Capt. Samuel Cock, sometime commander of the good ship the Charming Sally,” and published in London by “J. Conybeare in Smock-Ally near Petticoat Lane in Spittlefields,” appropriated the word as a simple place name, its meaning implied but unimportant, just one stop on a tour of sexual shenanigans disguised as all-but-impenetrable metaphors.

Nathan P. Rice, M.D., Morton’s authorized biographer, had written in Trials of a Public Benefactor that the provenance of the word Letheon was the Greek Lēthē.8  “The term,” Rice noted, “was derived from the name of the river Lethe, said in mythology to be one of the rivers in the infernal regions,” going on to note the association of the waters of the river with forgetfulness and oblivion.8  Perhaps Rice was relying on received wisdom or perhaps he simply assumed the derivation based on his own familiarity with mythologic associations. Such associations, however, did not stop with the forgetfulness and benign oblivion of anesthesia.

The coinage could not play on the Greek Lēthē without at least a sidelong glance at its Latin cognate lētum, meaning “death” (which more directly gives us our word lethal). But it did so in a way that emphasized a more benign state, not Chaucer’s “helle unswete,” but Shakespeare’s “Lethe’d dullness” stirred up from Hawthorne’s “brimming goblets.” A near-cadaveric repose, properly managed and contrary to anyone’s experience to date, was now a consummation devoutly to be wished. In his “Ode on Melancholy” (1819, published 1820), the English poet John Keats (1795–1821) had warned off readers with the striking “No, no, go not to Lethe, neither twist / Wolf’s-bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine,” proceeding to a litany of images equally associated with death (toxic nightshade and yew-berries, the beetle, and the owl): “Nor let the beetle,” he wrote, “nor the death-moth be / Your mournful Psyche…/ For shade to shade will come too drowsily, / And drown the wakeful anguish of the soul.” He argues here against the melancholy afforded by contemplation of a too-easy death, and he does so in terms that Gould, Holmes, and Bigelow, for instance, might readily have embraced. With Letheon, we proceed across or on Lethe (“Lethe” + “on”), appearing insensate, dead, but tricking perception by overturning it. Proceed, they might have been thinking, across Lethe as you would on the wings of the “death-moth” (i.e., become the soul taking leave of the body), but consider how, through the careful ministrations of the dentist or surgeon, the soul will return unchanged to the body and a deep sleep of forgetfulness need no longer be thought the sleep of oblivion (death).

Still other things may yet have been at play. Augustus Gould, one of Morton’s intimates, had been a zoology instructor at Harvard before focusing on entomology and then conchology. Using his knowledge of Latin and Greek, Gould either coined or sought consensus on generic and specific names for novel or redundantly referenced species by the hundreds. Familiar with the seminal work of the entomologists Jacob Hübner (1761–1826) of Germany and Johan(n) Christian Fabricius (1745–1808) of Denmark, he would have been acquainted with the shade-seeking Lethe genus of butterfly, several species of which are now considered native to New England. By a short imaginative leap, Gould, the etymologist–entomologist, might easily have reimagined shade-seeking butterflies as shade-seeking souls—men and women, that is, troubled by disease or injury and nervously contemplating surgery, now at last without an expectation of pain unto death but rather the restful dark shade of amnesia offered by the new compound with the winking name of Letheon.

Gould in particular might have touched Keats’ rather startling imagery with a scientist’s hand, alighting on the mention of the “death-moth” and letting his fancy roam. (Fabricius noted, in 1798, the genus Acherontia lachesis, the death’s-head hawk-moth, of which Keats might or mightn’t have been aware; tellingly, A. lachesis takes its name in part from Acheron, the underworld River of Pain or Woe noted above.) And any learned punster might have done him one better, recognizing that the Greek Lēthē finds a Latin equivalent not only in lētum but also in mors, -tis (which yields, for instance, the English “mortal” and “mortician”). A poetic jocularity attends the recognition that were the Latin root substituted for the Greek, Letheon (Lēthē + the common suffix -on) becomes “Morton” (mort- + -on). Or perhaps the play worked in reverse, the surname of the eager young dentist suggesting, along classical lines almost too faint to trace, the product name with which to promote the new anodyne gas. As we discuss below (“The Coinage: Lethe, Lethean, Letheon”), the Latin phrase lucus a non lucendo (meaning, via an imaginative and twisting translation, an “illogic explanation” or “absurd derivation”) was well enough known to the polyglot Holmes in particular to have bounded into view for just enough time to leave its mark.

Lethean in the Lexicon

Morton, whose educational pedigree was not nearly as distinguished as that of the physicians with whom he associated, was probably unfamiliar with etymologic niceties, and none but specialists like Gould would have known of the butterfly genus Lethe. But all would have recognized the importance of presenting not only a new product but also a name with commercial appeal. If the “Lethe” of the poets carried unwanted hints of mortal demise, the adjective Lethean—fortuitously already alive and abroad—stopped just short of an underworld passage harboring rank oblivion. Definitions of Lethean initially drew from both the Greek Lēthē and its Latin cognate lētum (death). The Anglicized Lethean (generally capitalized) likely entered the English vernacular at some point in the 16th or early 17th century.

The earliest dictionaries were little more than bilingual compilations of words with simple definitions. Medulla Grammatice [Marrow (Core) of Grammar] (Pepys Library MS 2002, ca. 1480), carries not only the entry Lethe, with a simple comment (“grece an[gli]ce forgettyng[e]”) that translates as “Greek; in English, forgetting”, but also the Latin Letu[m] listed with no more than an analogous word “mors”. Similarly, Ortus Vocabulorum [A Garden of Words], a Latin-English dictionary first printed in 1500, includes both Lethe (“grece. angl′. forgetynge”) and Letum (with a notation roughly translating as “equivalent to mors which in English means ‘deth’.”). John Withals (d. ca. 1556) produced, in 1553, A shorte Dictionarie for yonge begynners, which became a standard instructional work. His note for Lethargus translates as “forgetfulness, a disease that compels one to sleep”; our modern word lethargy carries the medical connotation even now.

In 1604, Robert Cawdrey (ca.1538 to ca.1604) assembled the first monolingual English dictionary, A Table Alphabeticall, providing definitions for lethall (“mortall, deadly”) and lethargie (“a drowsie and forgetfull disease”) but no related words. A few years later, Randle Cotgrave (ca. 1569–1634?), in his Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues (1611), noted the French forms lethean (masc.) and letheanne (fem.), most likely imported from the French Les Épithètes [Special Words] (1571) compiled by Maurice de La Porte (1531–1571). Cotgrave’s definition of Lethean, the earliest we have found in an English dictionary, was “deadlie, mortall, pestilent, death-inflicting”; his listing included Lethe (“death; mortalitie; obliuion”), and the allied words lethal (“deadlie, mortall; pestiferous”), lethargie (“a drowsie, and forgetfull sicknesse”), and lethargique (“sicke of a Lethargie, or of the drowsie ill”).

Thomas Blount (1618–1679), in Glossographia (1656), offered “forgetful” as his first definition of Lethean (from the Latin letheus), and secondarily “deadly, mortal, pestiferous” (from the Latin Lætheus). Lethe was “a feigned [i.e., imaginary, fictional] River of Hell, the water whereof being drunk, causeth forgetfulness of all that is past; Hence it is used for Oblivion or forgetfulness.” Drawing heavily from Blount, Edward Phillips (1630 to ca.1696), in The New World of English Words: Or, a General Dictionary (1658), defined Lethean only as “forgetful,” with a note on its derivation “from Lethe a River of Hell, which the Poets feign [i.e., imagine] to be of that nature that the water of it being drunk, causeth oblivion or forgetfulnesse.” A 1706 revision of Phillips’ dictionary by John Kersey the younger (b. ca. 1660 – d. in or after 1721), entitled The New World of Words: Or, Universal English Dictionary, omitted the word Lethean. By the mid-18th century, Samuel Johnson (1709–1784) would include lethargick (“sleepy”), lethargickness (“sleepiness; drowsiness”), lethargy (“a morbid drowsiness”), lethargied (“laid asleep; entranced”), and lethe (“oblivion; a draught of oblivion”), but not Lethean in his monumental Dictionary of the English Language (two vols., 1755). Elsewhere in the dictionary, Johnson quoted sources using the word Lethean, among them John Dryden’s translation, published in 1697, of Virgil’s Aeneid (“Whole Droves of Minds are, by the driving God, / Compell’d to drink the deep Lethæan Flood”; vi, 1016–17), and Richard Crashaw’s “Sospetto d’Herode” (published in Steps to the Temple, 1646), a translation of the first book of a sacred poem by Giovan Battista Marino, with the lines, “the Night’s companion…kindly cheating them / Of all their cares…/ Sealing all brests in a Lethæan band” (verse 49).

Johnson had overlooked Lethean but he could assume educated readers would be aware of its meaning. The 1828 revision by Walker and Jameson, a more streamlined one-volume text more handily used by students and others, expanded its list of definitions to include both Lethean (“oblivious; causing oblivion”) and lethiferous (“deadly; bringing death”). In his encyclopedic 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language, Noah Webster (1758–1843), citing Greek and Latin roots, included Lethean (“inducing forgetfulness or oblivion”) as well as lethal (“deadly; mortal; fatal”) and lethiferous (“deadly; mortal; bringing death or destruction”); Joseph E. Worcester (1784–1865) followed suit in compiling A Universal and Critical Dictionary of the English Language (1846).

Lethean in the Language of Everyday Life

The word Lethean (an adjectival form of Lethe) entered the language in the 16th century or early 17th century (probably via the French lethean, -anne) as Middle English and Middle French forms were expanded and simplified. By the 19th century, readers would have encountered it as part of the language of everyday life.

As its earliest example, the Oxford English Dictionary (1879–1928) cited James Howell (ca.1594–1666), who in his oft-reprinted Familiar Letters (1647) writes, “I did not think Suffolk Waters had such a Lethean Quality in them as to cause such an Amnestia in him of his Friends here upon the Thames” (The Familiar Letters of James Howell, 1890 reprint, pp. 520–521). An even earlier source is “Holy Sonnet IX” (ca. 1610, first published in 1633 as “Holy Sonnet V”) by John Donne (1572–1631), which implores God to make of the poet’s tears “a heavenly Lethean flood” in which to drown his “sinnes blacke memorie.” John Milton (1608–1674), in Paradise Lost (1667), speaks of how the damned “ferry over this Lethean Sound” in their progress through the underworld (Bk. 2, line 604).

In citing John Dryden (1631–1700) and the 1697 publication of his translation of Virgil’s Georgics (“Nine Mornings thence, Lethean Poppy bring,” iv. 787) along with a few more recent examples, the Oxford English Dictionary barely hints at how much the word flourished as a favorite with 19th-century writers of all stripes. An unattributed poem in London’s The Sporting Magazine (January 1800, Vol. 15, p. 216), speaks ominously of “names ignoble, born to be forgot,” who “Drop one by one, from Frame’s neglecting hand; / Lethean gulphs receive them as they fall, / And dark oblivion soon absorbs them all.” An anonymous reflection entitled “The Meditation of an Interesting Moment” in The Evangelical Magazine (London, 1806; Vol. 14, p. 27) provides this awful thought: “In Hell they feel again stings which they thought blunted, and are haunted with recollections for which they hoped to have found Lethean draughts.” In his lyric “Song,” John Keats (1795–1821) remarks “night’s sleepy eye” that “Closes up, and forgets all its Lethean care” (1818, published 1848), while Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822), in the Gothic novel Zastrozzi (1810), writes, “A Lethean torpor crept upon his senses…a total forgetfulness of every former event of his life swam in his dizzy brain.”

As in England, so in America: John Greenleaf Whittier (1807–1892), one of America’s popular “Fireside Poets,” published his widely disseminated anti-slavery poem, “The Ship-Builders,” in 1846. Reprinted often, Whittier’s poem would have been circulating at the time of Morton’s demonstration and the events occurring soon thereafter. “Speed on the ship!” it commands, “But let her bear / No merchandise of sin, / No groaning cargo of despair / Her roomy hold within; / No Lethean drug for Eastern lands, / Nor poison-draught for ours; / But honest fruits of toiling hands / And Nature’s sun and showers.” Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849), in his poem “Ulalume” (1847), invoked the “Lethean peace of the skies,” and Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), in a lecture entitled “Walking” (first delivered in 1851; published posthumously in The Atlantic Monthly in 1862) noted, “The Atlantic is a Lethean stream, in our passage over which we have had an opportunity to forget the Old World and its institutions.” Herman Melville (1819–1891) followed with “Into that Lethean canal…fell many a poor soul that night; fell, forever forgotten” (Israel Potter, 1855; serialized in Putnam’s Monthly, 1854–1855). The adjective’s place in the parlance of the day is reflected in its appearance in popular magazines such as Putnam’s Monthly, Godey’s Lady’s Book, and The Knickerbocker; Or New-York Monthly Magazine. The latter had published, for example, the minor but much admired American novelist F.W. Shelton (1814–1881), whose early story, “The Death Bed,” made full use of a classical allusion for a popular audience, drawing on Shelley’s Zastrozzi to boot. The narrator notes that for those blessed with Virgil’s dulcis vita (“the sweet life”), existence was not “a vulgar sensuality, a Lethean torpor” (February 1844, Vol. 23, p. 129).

In another sense entirely, “Lethean torpor” was exactly what Morton wished to induce in dental and surgical patients, a fact probably not lost on shrewd readers such as Gould and Bigelow, who might have given voice to the thought; and all the better if the effect—this “Lethean torpor”—was achieved by the application of something strangely familiar. Though the poet Whittier’s “Lethean drug” probably referred to opium, his phrase, much in the air in 1846, might easily be appropriated and extended.

The Coinage: Lethe, Lethean, Letheon

Gould, Holmes, and Bigelow, all educated at Harvard, were extremely well-versed in Greek and Latin and likely conversant with French and German; they seem gladly to have participated in the search for a new word to name Morton’s “preparation.” Indeed, they were the beneficiaries not only of a rich classical education but also the spirit of an age in which wordplay and language studies were very much in vogue. “But while schoolrooms taught parsing, they also sparked nationwide punning,” writes the noted literary scholar Michael West of the University of Pittsburgh. He explores our forbears’ “curiosity about foreign languages and the ancient, hidden meaning of words” and goes on to describe at length the “linguistic effervescence” of mid-19th-century America, a time when both scholarly and popular enthusiasms “focused attention on the origins of words.”9  The title page of Webster’s immense American Dictionary (1828) notes that the work was intended to include “The Origin, Affinities and Primary Signification of English Words, as Far as They Have Been Ascertained…[as well as] Accurate and Discriminating Definitions…to Which are Prefixed, an Introductory Dissertation on the Origin, History and Connection of the Languages of Western Asia and of Europe.” The dictionary reflected expansive lexicographical exploration as well as ordinary readers’ wide-ranging enthusiasms. It is hardly a surprise, then, to learn that a small band of accomplished physicians leapt at the opportunity to suggest original, even fanciful names for a novel “preparation” or “nostrum,” that someone like Gould might have been attempting a play on something as unusual as a shade-seeking butterfly, or that they would have favored a name so similar to a word already in circulation, one that might have played well in the popular imagination. “Lethean torpor,” by verbal sleight of hand, becomes “Letheon torpor,” a physiologic imperative if surgery and dentistry were to involve anesthetic insensibility.

For his part, Oliver Wendell Holmes went to some pains to come up with a name, though it was for the change effected in those to whom Morton’s new compound was administered. On November 21, 1846, he wrote what appears a rather straightforward letter to Morton, arguing that the “state” be called anæsthesia: “This signifies,” he said, “insensibility—more particularly (as used by Linnæus and Cullen) to objects of touch. (See Good—Nosology, p. 259.).”8,10–13  He went on to elaborate, “Thus we might say the state of Anæsthesia, or the anæsthetic state,” before advising Morton that “it might be allowable to say anæsthetic agent, but this admits of question.” And Holmes didn’t stop there. “The words,” he says, “anti-neuric, aneuric, neuro-leptic, neuro-lepsia, neuro-stasis, etc., seem too anatomical; whereas the change is a physiological one. I throw them out for consideration.” Morton, he must have known, was likely not to parse the language so finely, and Holmes, for all his sobriety of address, might have been having a bit of fun: anyone checking John Mason Good’s A Physiologic System of Nosology (1823) would have been greeted by more than 500 pages of taxonomic complexity with language notations not only in English and Latin, but also in Greek, German, French, and Arabic.14 

Just four months earlier, on July 22, 1846, the poet and wit John Godfrey Saxe (1816–1887) had recited a comic satirical poem to the Associated Alumni of Middlebury College. He called the poem “Progress” and dedicated it to none other than his friend Oliver Wendell Holmes for his “fine Poetical Genius” and “His Unequalled Power of Playful Satire”—traits perhaps in evidence in Holmes’ letter to Morton. On October 16, 1846, the day of Morton’s historic demonstration of etherization, one short stanza of Saxe’s long poem appeared by chance in the Boston Post under the title, “Ingenious Recipe for making a Science.” Little could Holmes have known that he’d feel the urge, a month hence, to help “make” (or, more precisely, “name”) a science, but that in part is what his letter purported to do. The recipe, joked Saxe, involved combining “three stale ‘truths;’ a dozen ‘facts,’ assumed; / Two known ‘effects,’ and fifty more, presumed; / ‘Affinities’ a score, to sense unknown, / And, just as ‘lucus, [a] non lucendo’ shown, / Add but a name of pompous Anglo-Greek, / And only not impossible to speak, / The work is done; a ‘science’ stands confest, / And countless welcomes greet the queenly guest.” No stale truths here, but “effects,” those demonstrated as well as those presumed? Yes, indeed: Morton’s compound surely produced effects in need of explanation, in need even of a name.

As announced by Morton, the word Letheon (initially printed as “Lethēon” or “Lethéon”), the subject today of much speculation, would at the time have been a revelation—a novelty word perhaps, but also a tribute to imaginative reach. Johnson’s Dictionary (rev. 1828), Webster’s (1828, rev. 1848), and Worcester’s Dictionary (1846) all include Lethean with the stress on the second syllable (“Lethē´an”); in the latter issues of Warren’s Some Account, Morton’s new compound is variously printed with the lengthened or accented second “e” (“Lethēon” and “Lethéon”). This perhaps signaled an intended similarity in pronunciation.

We do not know whether the name came easily to Gould or to Bigelow and, given Holmes’ rather extravagant exercise in naming, we might suppose some head-scratching before Letheon presented itself ready-made. We have noted that the suggestive verbal similarity to the adjective Lethean had a part to play, and that Gould might have gone so far as to consider the shade-seeking Lethe genus of butterfly as a corroborative source. Could other factors have been at play? The mythologic River Lethe commands a first look always, but given the 19th-century educational emphasis on classical forms generally, at least two more possibilities—one from the Latin, another from the Greek—are worth reviewing.

Was Letheon Coined Before 1846?

In The Origins of Anesthesia (1983), the surgeon and medical historian Sherwin B. Nuland, M.D. (1930–2014), implicitly discarded the Greek root (the river Lethe, vialēthē, “oblivion, forgetfulness”) suggested by Nathan P. Rice and adopted a more direct Latin line of descent: “The writers of antiquity,” he wrote, “commonly referred to poppy-induced sleep with a term used by Virgil: Letheon.”15  He repeated the claim in Doctors: The Biography of Medicine (1988), colorfully describing how, two weeks after the first pain-free amputation at the Massachusetts General Hospital (the etherization event of November 7, 1846), Morton “met with two representatives of the hospital, Henry Jacob Bigelow and Oliver Wendell Holmes, and gave the name Letheon to sulfuric ether…. The term was borrowed, at the suggestion of Holmes, from the writings of Virgil, who had, as noted earlier, applied it to the restful sleep induced by the tears of the poppy plant.”16  There is, however, no evidence at all that Holmes ever propounded a Virgilian source or that such a meeting ever took place. The distinguished anesthesiologist Norman Bergman, M.D. (1926–1999), in The Genesis of Surgical Anesthesia (1998), also attributed the word Letheon to Virgil. “The deep sleep,” he wrote, “associated with opium came to be described by many writers using Virgil’s word ‘letheon’; a word which was to assume great significance in more modern times.”17  Bergman, though, cited a 1946 article by G. K. Tallmadge, where we find this: “Poppy was known to produce sleep, to relieve cough, to stop the bowels, and to alleviate pain, and on the last score it was employed medically in very many diseases. The sleep it caused was described by most writers in Virgil’s word, Lethean.”18 

Letheon or Lethean? Virgil (70 B.C.E.–19 B.C.E.), of course, wrote in Latin, the Eclogues, Georgics, and the Aeneid comprising his major works. In six instances, four in the Aeneid and two in the Georgics, he employs forms of the adjective lethaeus, which translates as lethean (“causing forgetfulness, of Lethe, of the Underworld”). No inflected Latin form of lethaeus reads as letheon (in the neuter singular nominative case, the word is spelled “lethaeum,” as it is in the accusative and vocative cases). In the Georgics, for example, Bk. 1, line 78 reads in part “lethaeo perfusa papavera somno,” which translates as “poppies drenched in Lethean sleep.” Ovid (43 B.C.E. to 17/8 C.E.), in his Metamorphoses (ca. 8 C.E.), used the word in a similar fashion: the phrase “Lethaei gramine succi” (Bk. VII, line 152) translates roughly as “using an herb of lethean juice.” Such examples are plentiful. Letheon, in fact, is not a Latin form, nor can we locate any translator who used it to construe anything in Virgil or other writers of the time.

Bergman, consulting Tallmadge, possibly looked past the word Lethean, relying on the mind’s eye to supply Letheon where it did not exist. Lethean was as unusual to late 20th-century scholars as it continues to be today. Nuland, tumbling into and out of an apocryphal story about the naming experience generally, has more to answer for. Both, though, point us to more expansive terrain, that of the classical canon generally and works more familiar to our learned 19th-century counterparts than to most of us today.

By 1846, when Gould, Bigelow, and Holmes joined with Morton in a rather hurried attempt to name his compound, the word Letheon had in fact been neatly (if rather quietly) embedded in the French language if not the English for well over a century (fig. 4). Might Gould have heard or read of a mountain or perhaps a high hill named Letheon, to which at least three 18th-century French geographers, drawing on the work of master cartographer Abraham Ortelius (1527–1598), had directed their readers? And what possible significance might that outcropping have had as Gould gave some thought to names for Morton’s “preparation”? This Italian mountain, located in the Campania region of Italy, is not found on any map we have been able to locate, though Ortelius gave his readers to think such a place might indeed have existed, at least according to Lycophron (fig. 5). And who, we ask, was Lycophron?

Fig. 4.

The name Letheon in an 18th-century French dictionary. Translated into English as: “Letheon, a high mountain in Italy, according to Lycophron. Ortelius believes it was in Campania.” From: Antoine-Augustin Bruzen la Martinière’s Le Grand Dictionnaire Géographique et Critique. Tome Cinquiéme. Premiere Partie. K. L., 1735, p. 169. Image source gallica.bnf.fr / Bibliothèque Nationale De France (National Library of France), Paris, France.

Fig. 4.

The name Letheon in an 18th-century French dictionary. Translated into English as: “Letheon, a high mountain in Italy, according to Lycophron. Ortelius believes it was in Campania.” From: Antoine-Augustin Bruzen la Martinière’s Le Grand Dictionnaire Géographique et Critique. Tome Cinquiéme. Premiere Partie. K. L., 1735, p. 169. Image source gallica.bnf.fr / Bibliothèque Nationale De France (National Library of France), Paris, France.

Fig. 5.

Abraham Ortelius’ note on Letheon in Thesaurus Geographicus (Antwerp, 1587, unnumbered page): “LETHEON, ληθέων, Italia mons excelsus, (in Campania ut puto) Lycophroni.” Ortelius’ note translates into English as: “LETHEON, a high mountain in Italy (in Campania, or so I think) [according to] Lycophron.” This is the earliest reference we have found in print employing the word Letheon. Image reproduced with the permission of Bayerische Staatsbibliothek (Bavarian State Library), Munich, Germany. Call number: Hbks/B 1 a. urn:nbn:de:bvb:12-bsb10801539-7. Image 347.

Fig. 5.

Abraham Ortelius’ note on Letheon in Thesaurus Geographicus (Antwerp, 1587, unnumbered page): “LETHEON, ληθέων, Italia mons excelsus, (in Campania ut puto) Lycophroni.” Ortelius’ note translates into English as: “LETHEON, a high mountain in Italy (in Campania, or so I think) [according to] Lycophron.” This is the earliest reference we have found in print employing the word Letheon. Image reproduced with the permission of Bayerische Staatsbibliothek (Bavarian State Library), Munich, Germany. Call number: Hbks/B 1 a. urn:nbn:de:bvb:12-bsb10801539-7. Image 347.

Gould would likely have had an answer. Attributed to the Hellenistic scholar Lycophron of Chalcides (ca. 320 B.C.E. to ca. 280 B.C.E.) are the obscurely riddling 1,474 lines of iambic trimeter comprising Alexandra, a poem that had vexed undergraduate readers of Greek for centuries. We can surmise that it was familiar to Gould and his young Harvard contemporaries, who, making their way through the classical canon, might have come across the unusual place-name Lethaiōn (a novel lengthened form of Lēthē existing nowhere else). Noted by 12th-century commentators (fig. 6), and translated into English by the early 19th century as Lethæon, the word identified a spot passed by the wandering Odysseus: “Thence from Lethæon’s hills I mark him fare” (Viscount Royston, Cassandra, 1806, p. 52, line 819). This Lethæon, located near what we know today as Lake Avernus, close to the ancient Greek colony at Cumae, and a cave considered by Virgil as the entrance to the Underworld, shared in a mythology of earthly existence, of the passage between this world and the next. Implicit parallels to the earlier Greek Lethe immediately come to mind, especially when “Lethæon’s hills” are understood to represent a rare restful stop in a troubled landscape of “hoarse-resounding Acherusian waves; /…by where Prosérpine’s grove / With gloomy foliage sheds infernal night; / By the red waves of fiery Phlegethon…/ By black Avernus; by Cocytus’ wave, / Where sobs, and shrieks, and other voice than song / Pierce the dull ear of Night…” (Royston, 1806, lines 810–822). What 19th-century armchair classicists, while helping a young dentist name a new “preparation,” might have made of this is of course unknown but not, we posit, beyond all conjecture. (For more on this particular line of inquiry, see appendix, “Letheon, Lycophron, and the Classical Canon.”)

Fig. 6.

Note on Ληθαιωνος (Lethaiōnos) in line 703 of Lycophron’s Alexandra, in Scholia Tzetzae [Commentary of Isaac and Johannes Tzetzes], edited by Christian Gottfried Müller (Liepzig, 1811). Scholia Tzetzae reads “Lethaiōnos] Lethaiōn, odos hupselon Italias” (“of Lethaiōn] Lethaiōn, a high path or way in Italy”); hence, by extension, a lofty place, a slope, a hill, as reflected in Hornblower’s translation, “the high hill of Lethaion,” or Royston’s “Lethæon’s hills.” Image source Hathi Trust. Book source Columbia University, New York, New York. Digitized by Google.

Fig. 6.

Note on Ληθαιωνος (Lethaiōnos) in line 703 of Lycophron’s Alexandra, in Scholia Tzetzae [Commentary of Isaac and Johannes Tzetzes], edited by Christian Gottfried Müller (Liepzig, 1811). Scholia Tzetzae reads “Lethaiōnos] Lethaiōn, odos hupselon Italias” (“of Lethaiōn] Lethaiōn, a high path or way in Italy”); hence, by extension, a lofty place, a slope, a hill, as reflected in Hornblower’s translation, “the high hill of Lethaion,” or Royston’s “Lethæon’s hills.” Image source Hathi Trust. Book source Columbia University, New York, New York. Digitized by Google.

Recalling the French tradition that finds the word Letheon in 18th-century texts, we are perhaps not as surprised as we otherwise might be at a bit of shipping news twelve years before Morton gave the name to his compound. On August 1, 1834, the Baltimore [Maryland] Patriot and Mercantile Advertiser reported the French brig Armede [sic] had cleared the port of Charleston, South Carolina on July 24, having debarked from Senegal, Africa, under Shipmaster or Captain Letheon. On August 7, the New-York Spectator announced that the same French brig L’Armide, under Captain Letheon, out of Senegal, Africa, had cleared the port of Savannah, Georgia. Whoever he was—assuming, that is, the newspapers are correct in their spelling—Captain Letheon is a mystery to us today.

Reported Dates of the Meeting to Select a Name

Although we now have more insight into the etymology of Letheon, the date when Morton adopted the name remains elusive. Although dates ranging from November 2 to November 21 have been suggested by anesthesia historians, no definitive citations or original documentation were provided to substantiate the various claims. In fact, no date can be adduced with certainty from 19th-century sources. That no one—not Morton himself, not Gould, Bigelow, or Holmes—seems to have memorialized the date remains a quirk of history. At best, Holmes’ November 21 letter suggesting “anæsthesia” as a name might flag a period around which Morton solicited suggestions for a name.

Letheon: A Primer for the Present Day

The implication that the name Letheon was coined sometime in October 1846 is of course incorrect. Again, the name Letheon was not used by Morton on October 16, 1846, and the name did not appear in the Jackson-Morton patent application on October 27, 1846.

A surprisingly large number of anesthesiologists, historians, and authors have been notably slipshod in referring to Letheon in various essays and reviews, as the following three examples will illustrate.

F. D. Moore, M.D., reviewing the story of J. C. Warren’s “act of conscience” in allowing Morton into the operating theater on November 7, 1846, for a “capital” operation, proceeds carefully enough in telling the story but then muddies the waters: “We realize now that there were two adverse factors at work, two severe problems for Warren to face, over the use of this ‘preparation,’ this ‘invention,’ this ‘Letheon’ of Morton’s on the morning of Friday, Oct. 16, 1846.”19  This Letheon of Morton’s would not be known by that name for well over a month after the October 16 demonstration of surgical etherization.

James Tayloe Gwathmey, M.D., in his textbook Anesthesia, noted, “On October 27, 1846, Morton and Jackson sought to patent their anesthetic under the name of ‘Letheon.’ From its odor it was soon recognized as ‘sulphuric ether.’”20 

The journal Anesthesiology, announcing in 2017 its first annual “Letheon” poetry prize, has this: “in 1846 William Morton shiftily attempted to patent the anesthetic as ‘letheon,’ channeling the mystique of classical mythology.”21 

In a sense, these and others can be forgiven the lapses. The chronology was confused from the outset by careless editors and physician-writers. Very early on, The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal (January 20, 1847) published anonymous correspondence under the banner: “The Patent ‘Letheon.’”22  Three months later, in an article titled, “The Patent Letheon—Jackson and Morton’s Specification,” an anonymous correspondent identified only as “S” wrote, “It has been repeatedly said that Dr. Jackson is not concerned in the Patent for the Letheon,” before going on to rehearse Jackson’s share in the signal discovery.23 

The phrase, “The patent for the Letheon,” which confuses discussion to this day, has an obvious appeal to writers old and new. Though a convenient shorthand reference, it does, however, promulgate an historical error. No great harm is done in simplifying what was, at the time, a swirl of both public and private activity. Still, we do well to remember that things do slot into place on a timeline that we ought to correct with each new bit of information we find.

Conclusion

Buoyed by the success of his public demonstration of ether anesthesia on October 16, 1846, at the Massachusetts General Hospital, William T. G. Morton undertook to protect his as yet undisclosed “preparation.” On October 27, 1846, he joined with Dr. Charles T. Jackson in seeking an American patent. In November, or early December, 1846, Morton enlisted the help of some of Boston’s leading physicians regarding a commercial name for his “preparation.” He settled on the neologism Letheon (as suggested by Augustus Addison Gould, M.D., and Henry Jacob Bigelow, M.D.).

The provenance of the name is conjectural. We have not identified a first-hand account of the coinage of Letheon. The primary participants did not leave letters, diaries, or daybooks in which they offered a rationale for the name nor did they reveal any information in their publications on etherization or in the various affidavits published in Morton’s Statements volume. Though the word Letheon undoubtedly has roots in the Greek Lēthē (forgetfulness, oblivion), it may also have stemmed from the common adjective Lethean (causing oblivion or forgetfulness), much in use by 19th-century writers. Possibly, too, an element of wordplay common to the era informed the coinage.

Research Support

Support for this study was provided solely from the authors’ personal funds.

Competing Interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

References

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8

Appendix: Letheon, Lycophron, and the Classical Canon

Augustus A. Gould, Henry J. Bigelow, and Oliver Wendell Holmes were all proficient in Latin and Greek, quizzed since their school days in the classical canon. Perhaps the branding of ether as Letheon owed something to such training beyond the simple note that Lēthē might be adduced as Letheon’s root. We have already remarked on the misguided notion that Letheon derives from Virgil’s lethaeus (“causing forgetfulness”); one overlooked source for Letheon is the Greek Ληθαιων (Lethaiōn or Lethæon), a neologism found in the poem Alexandra, attributed to the 3rd-century-B.C.E. poet and grammarian Lycophron of Chalcides.

Among the most gifted American students to do postgraduate work at the University of Göttingen in central Germany was Harvard’s Edward Everett (1794–1865). After earning his A.B., summa cum laude, in 1811 and his A.M. in Divinity Studies in 1814, he took a doctorate at Göttingen, the first American to do so, in 1817. Installed at Harvard in 1815 as the inaugural Eliot Professor of Greek Literature, he had traveled to Göttingen for two years’ tutoring under the guidance of the distinguished classicist G. Ludolf Dissen (1784–1837)1; Everett toured Europe for two additional years, returning to his post at Harvard in 1819. Dissen screened preceptees like Everett with the same intentionally obscure 1,474 lines of lyric Greek poetry with which the poet John Milton had tested himself: Alexandra, attributed to Lycophron.2

A daughter of Troy’s King Priam, Cassandra (or “Alexandra”) was blessed by Apollo with the gift of prophecy but was cursed, after rebuffing him, with universal disbelief of her predictions. She even foresaw that Ajax the Lesser would rape her after dragging her from the temple of the goddess Athena when the Greeks sacked Troy. When Ajax avoided punishment for his crime, an enraged Athena condemned the Grecian fleet, even the ships commanded by Odysseus, to destruction or a trying voyage home. On reaching Mycenae with Cassandra now his concubine, the Greeks’ commander-in-chief, Agamemnon, and the hapless Cassandra were murdered by his wife, Clytemnestra, or Aegisthus, her lover.

Riddled with obscurities, Lycophron’s Alexandra, a prophetic pronouncement on various fates of Greek and Trojan warriors, is difficult to follow even in English. “The rivers and lakes of the underworld,” notes Oxford classicist Simon Hornblower, “conventionally located in Campania, are the subject of some powerfully evocative lines,” among them: “He leaves the high hill of Lethaion, / and lake Aornos encircled by a noose, / and the river of Kokytos violently roaring in darkness, / tributary of black Styx…” (lines 703–706).3 The subject of these lines is Odysseus. But where exactly are we, and what of this “high hill of Lethaion,” an apparent verbal cousin to a Greek place (a plain, a house, a river) of oblivion?

The Greek text of Alexandra contained the hitherto unknown word Ληθαιωνος (Lethaiōnos), the genitive (or possessive) case of Ληθαιων (Lethaiōn or Lethæon), a lengthened form of Lēthē not found elsewhere in the Greek canon. In an 1811 edition of a standard commentary—that of the Byzantine poet and grammarian Joannes Tzetzes (ca. 1110–1180) and his brother Isaac (d. 1138)—we (as did our 19th-century counterparts) find the word Lethaiōnos (meaning “of Lethaiōn”; i.e., the genitive singular of the proper noun) set off by a bracket with the foundational Lethaiōn referenced alongside, the latter identified as “a high path or way in Italy” (fig. 6).4 Hornblower explains, “Lyk[ophron] wished to mention as many of the rivers of the Underworld as possible, but Lethe, River of Forgetfulness, was post-Homeric (it featured most famously in the Myth of Er, Pl[ato]. Rep[ublic], 621a); so the name, or an enlarged adaptation of it to suit a mountain, could be introduced into the Campanian narrative only by a bold fictional creation.”5 Lycophron, in effect, imagined the word Lethaiōn as the name of a mountain in the Campania region of Italy when he set his story there.

Back now to American students of Göttingen’s Professor Dissen. Puzzlement, we might imagine, ruled whenever the Alexandra came out. But they had the Tzetzes' commentary for grammatical, geographical, and even thematic help, and it sufficed to a point. They might have been helped as well by a translation by Philip Yorke, Viscount Royston (1784–1808), an 1803 graduate of St. John’s College, Cambridge. Prepared while he was an undergraduate, privately printed in 1806 by the Cambridge University Press, and published posthumously in 1816, Viscount Royston’s rendering reads in part: “Thence from Lethæon’s hills I mark him [i.e., Odysseus] fare / By black Avernus; by Cocytus’ wave,” and so on. Royston, following Tzetzes, identifies “Lethæon” simply as “a mountain of Italy,” but tellingly notes of “Avernus or Aornos” that it is “a lake near the Lucrine, and surrounded with woods, according to Virgil….” (Here Royston notes Virgil’s Aeneid, Bk. 3, line 442).6 In John Dryden’s expansive rendering of Virgil’s epic poem, the speaker warns the Trojan hero Aeneas, “Arriv’d at Cumæ, when you view the flood / Of black Avernus, and the sounding wood, / The mad prophetic Sibyl you shall find, / Dark in a cave, and on a rock reclin’d” (Aen. Bk. 3, trans. Dryden, Vol. 13, The Harvard Classics, 1909, p. 145). The reference is to the Cumaean Sibyl, guide to the Underworld, to whom Aeneas applies for assistance in finding the spirit of his dead father. To descend is easy, she tells him, “The gates of hell are open night and day; / Smooth the descent, and easy is the way: / But to return, and view the cheerful skies, / In this the task and mighty labor lies” (Aen. Bk. 6, trans. Dryden, 1909, p. 216).

The Lethaiōn of the Tzetzes’ commentary made its way into at least three 18th-century French geographies, all of which simplified the Latin spelling Lethæon to Letheon.7–9 The earliest—Antoine-Augustin Bruzen la Martinière’s Le Grand Dictionnaire Géographique et Critique (1735)—announces:“LETHEON, haute montagne d’Italie, selon Lycophron” (i.e., “Letheon, a high mountain in Italy, according to Lycophron”; fig. 4).7 In fact, this might more properly have read, “Letheon, a high mountain in Italy, according to a commentary on Lycophron’s Alexandra.”

Bruzen la Martinière continues, “Ortelius croit qu’elle étoit dans la Campanie” or, fleshing it out a bit, “The Brabantian master cartographer and geographer Abraham Ortelius (1527–1598) believes this Letheon was in Campania.” In his Thesaurus Geographicus (1587), Ortelius specifically references the place-name Letheon, identifying it as “ληθέων, Italia mons excelsus, (in Campania ut puto) Lycophroni” or “Letheon, a high mountain in Italy (in Campania, or so I think), [according to] Lycophron” (fig. 5).10 The substitution of the accented Greek letter epsilon (έ) for the Greek diphthong ai perhaps provides a clue to the rendering in the Thesaurus and the simplified spelling thereafter. Whatever the case, we need note only that Ortelius was likely reporting an historical myth; he probably knew of the Tzetzes’ commentary (“Lethaiōn, a high path or way in Italy”), and possibly extrapolated from geographical insights gleaned from Virgil. And as for Bruzen la Martinière, his definition of Aornos (Lake Avernus) relies in part on Virgil, who said the Greeks associated the lake with a Cumaean cave that the Roman’s knew as the entrance to the Underworld (Aen. Bk. 6, line 239). Tellingly, a century hence, a British geography relying not on a poet of antiquity but on observed realities, the Thesaurus Geographicus. A New Body of Geography: Or, a Compleat Description of the Earth…Collected with great Care from the most approv’d Geographers and Modern Travellers and Discoveries, by several Hands (London: Printed for Abel Swall and Tim. Child, 1695) makes no mention of a mountain named Letheon in Italy.

We cannot know how much of this someone like Edward Everett would have been aware of. Of Lycophron’s Alexandra and Virgil’s Aeneid? Of course. Of a 12th-century commentary, reprinted in a German edition of 1811, that had introduced the word Lethaiōn? Yes, more than likely. Of a simplified spelling in French? Possibly. And we cannot know how much of this he imparted to his students, one of whom, Augustus Addison Gould, was a student during Everett’s final years at Harvard as Eliot Professor. We can only speculate whether, in 1846, Gould would have remembered Lycophron or Virgil in attempting a name for Morton’s “preparation.” But Lēthē, the name of a river and goddess, doubtless opened onto thoughts of the common adjective Lethean and possibly to Lethæon, the name of a mythical mountain, a simplified spelling of which Morton would seize on as the commercial name with which to present his preparation to a waiting world. A single verbal thread here ties together the Greek notion of an afterlife as oblivion with the Roman idea of descent into and emergence from a dark place of spirits. And we can only speculate whether, in thinking through the state of insensibility he sought to explain, Gould would have remembered his Aeneid, as versified by Dryden (Aen. Bk. 6, trans. Dryden, 1909, p. 216): “Smooth the descent…/ But to return, and view the cheerful skies, / In this the task and mighty labor lies.” A few inhalations of the ethereal gas, and smooth the descent into insensibility, then the physician’s fine labor to retrieve the insensible soul so that the cheerful skies should open and a conscious delight be restored.

1

Varg PA: Edward Everett: The Intellectual in the Turmoil of Politics. Selinsgrove, PA, Susquehanna University Press, 1992, pp. 21–2

2

Hale JK: Milton’s Languages: The Impact of Multilingualism on Style. Cambridge, UK, Cambridge University Press, 1997, pp. 75–6

3

Hornblower S: Lykophron’s Alexandra, Rome, and the Hellenistic World. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2018, p. 110 and p. 110, n.15

4

Tzetzes I, Tzetzes J: Isaakiou Kai Iōannou Tou Tzetzou Scholia Eis Lykophrona, Volumina Tria [Commentary on Lykophron. In Three Volumes]. Christ[ian] Gottfried Müller, ed. Lipsiae, F.C.G. Vogelii, 1811, p. 748

5

Hornblower S: Lykophron: Alexandra. Greek Text, Translation, Commentary, and Introduction. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2015, p. 290

6

Yorke P (Viscount Royston): Cassandra, Translated from the Original Greek of Lycophron, and Illustrated with Notes. The Classical Journal (London) 1816; 14:16–7

7

Bruzen la Martinière [A-A]: Le Grand Dictionnaire Géographique et Critique. Tome Cinquiéme. Premiere Partie. K. L. [The Great Geographic and Critical Dictionary, Vol. 5, Part 1, K through L.] 1735, p. 169

8

Sabbathier [F]: Dictionnaire pour l’Intelligence des Auteurs Classiques, Grecs et Latins, Tant Sacrés que Profanes, Contenant la Géographie, l’Histoire, la Fable, et les Antiquités. Tome Vingt-Cinquieme. [A Dictionary of Things Relating to Greek and Latin Authors, both Sacred and Profane, Containing Geography, History, Folklore, and Fables. Volume 25.] Paris, Chez Delalain, 1778, p. 187

9

Mentelle [E]: Encyclopédie Méthodique. Géographie Ancienne. Tome Second. [Methodical Encyclopedia. Ancient Geography. Volume II.] Paris, Chez Panckoucke, 1789, p. 270

10

Ortelius A. Thesaurus Geographicus. Antwerp, Christophori Plantini, 1587