THE LADY AT THE INFORMATION DESK was as professional as they come. High-cheekboned, smartly dressed, standing against a backdrop of "Welcome!" written in many different languages. She smiled a perfunctory smile at me and Pecos, two casual touristy types, as she how-may-I-help-youed. Her associate to her right was speaking to a family in a language I didn't know.
"Well, I guess I've got a bit of a weird request," I started. Her brow furrowed.
"How weird?" she asked.
"We'd like to see the Ether Dome, please," I said. She relaxed and smiled again, this time genuinely and with relief.
"Oh, that!" she said, brightly. "That's not weird at all. In fact, that one's an easy one. I thought you were going to ask for something really weird. All I've had today were crazy questions, and I've got an hour left to go."
She rummaged through a file and gave us both some paper handouts. Then she brought out a little map of Massachusetts General Hospital and drew a route for us.
"You're right here, okay? MGH Main Entrance. Head down this main corridor here, until you get to the coffeeshop. It's pretty easy to find, I mean, it's a coffeeshop. Turn right and go down Bullfinch Corridor -- it's very narrow, now, it's in the oldest building we have here -- and take this elevator here to the fourth floor. Once you're on the fourth floor, just follow the signs to the Ether Dome."
"Sounds pretty easy," Pecos said.
"It's not so bad," the lady agreed. "Now we've had some folks up in the Ether Dome already today, so the door should be unlocked. But if it's not, and you can't get in, just call Security at 1212--" (here she scrawled the number on our map) "--and they'll let you in. And on your way back down, now, be sure to take the stairs. There's a flight of stairs just before the door to the Ether Dome, they're old and granite, and they're lined with old pictures of hospital memorabilia. I think you'll like it. It's easier to first get to the Ether Dome by the elevator, and then come back down by the stairs. That's what I like to tell people, anyway."
"Ok," I said. "We'll take the stairs down. Thank you very much!" The lady smiled, nodded and glad-to-have-been-of-assistanced, but stopped in mid-nod.
"Oh!" she said, with a bit of a grin. "I almost forgot. We have a very special guest in the Ether Dome today. His name is Paddy. I think you'll know him when you see him." And with that, we were on our way, down the main corridor, passing physicians in scrubs, nurses, patients in wheelchairs, coffee drinkers, all sorts of people. To them, we just looked like regular visitors, perhaps to call upon a sick friend or relative. But we weren't. We were on a secret mission to see the Ether Dome.
Ever since moving to Boston I'd heard stories about a strange display hidden deep within Mass General Hospital, that they'd kept one of their original operating theaters open as a museum of sorts, commemorating the first operation where ether was used as an anaesthetic. I'd also heard they kept things in this dome, strange medical things, oddities, and, most inexplicably, someone had once told me there was even an Egyptian mummy. A little bit of research online brought up little mention of the Ether Dome and its history, but nothing real concrete about if and when it was open to the public, just scattered mentions on some newspaper article or another. I didn't know what to believe, but I did know one day I'd have to find out.
The idea of this historical space kept inside a busy, modern, working hospital was also intriguing. MGH certainly doesn't advertise the Ether Dome as an attraction; it's not a stop on the Freedom Trail, no historical reenactments take place there, and I'm certain it only warrants a passing mention if a Duck Tour drove by Cambridge Street. (It's just as well, too, for I'm sure the hospital would not care to have a steady stream of gawkers cluttering up the corridors all day long.) With the knowledge that it was well off the beaten path yet right in the middle of everything, I had decided it must be curiously old and decrepit.
I expected a dusty, old wooden chamber, some sunlight filtering in through uncleaned glass, a bare 100-watt light bulb illuminating dank cases full of scary surgical implements and maybe that mummy people were talking about. I imagined it being mentioned in hushed tones among the hospital, a relic kept solely because there wasn't any need to replace it yet. That the information lady smiled and said our request was easy told me, however, that it was a bit more public than that. I mean, they even had handouts prepared for visitors. So much for the disused lavatory with sign saying "Beware of the Leopard."
The lady was also right about the Bullfinch corridor; it was incredibly narrow and illuminated with yellow lighting instead of bright hospital fluorescent. The elevator we used was ancient and unsettling, and groaned and shuddered ominously just as Pecos pointed out its ancientness and tendency to unsettle.
"Maybe I shouldn't have said that," she whispered.
"I think you've offended it," I said.
"It's a good thing we're taking the stairs on the way back," she said.
We passed by more doctors once we were on the fourth floor; none of them gave us much notice. We followed another narrow, twisty corridor to the center of the Bullfinch Building, the hospital complex's oldest building. There was the large stairway leading down, but right ahead of us lay the door to the Ether Dome. A sign on a podium outside read "IN USE FOR LECTURE" but we didn't hear anything. We peered in through the glass in the door; an elderly couple was inside, just about to leave. I opened the door -- French handle -- we exchanged quiet pleasantries with the elderly couple as they passed by, and then the door shut behind us.
And there we were, alone in the Ether Dome.
The place was well-kept, brightly lit, and clean, and the steep seating and plain white wooden gallery reminded me of many a Yankee Congregationalist church. It was also eerily quiet, and the acoustics were such that even quiet words of no importance carried much reverential weight. Even my cameraphone's shutterclick noise reverberated Importantly throughout the room. This operating theater was the place of over 8,000 surgical procedures from 1818 to 1868, and the fact that anesthesia was only used from 1846 on was difficult to contemplate. What screams must have echoed through this chamber, I thought, while Learned Men of Medicine sat in the oddly-shaped seats, peering down at the blood and gore, taking notes or nodding approvingly.
The most famous operation in the Ether Dome, illustrated here by a giant painting which occupies most of its back wall, took place on October 16, 1846. A printer by the name of Gilbert Abbott was set to have a tumor removed from underneath his jaw. Using an ether-soaked sponge in a glass flask, a dentist named William T.G. Morton administered ether to the patient. When Mr. Abbott was good and unconscious, surgeon John Collins Warren quickly removed the tumor. Dr. Collins later wrote:
To the surprise of Dr. Warren and the other gentlemen present, the patient did not shrink nor cry out, but during the insulation of the veins he began to move his limbs and utter extraordinary expressions, and these movements seemed to indicate the existence of pain; but after he had recovered his faculties, he said he had experienced none, but only a sensation like that of scraping the part with a blunt instrument, and he ever after continued to say he had not felt any pain.With the patient's own words a testimony to the success of the anaesthesia, Dr. Warren turned to the audience in attendance and proclaimed "Gentlemen, this is no humbug."
Later, as the news spread, a London newspaper made this exultation:
Oh, what delight for every feeling heart to find the new year ushered in with the announcement of this noble discovery of the power to still the sense of pain, and veil the eye and memory from all the horrors of an operation ... WE HAVE CONQUERED PAIN.
The actual ether-soaked sponge is on display, accompanied by a hand-written note with ink so faded it was hard to read. The seats of the operating theater each had a little name inscribed on an inset plaque; presumably the physician or spectator in attendance during the historic operation.
The dome's recently-rebuilt rotunda is topped with copper and ringed with modern lighting. The slats leading down one part of the dome were used to let light in before gas lanterns and electrical light (eyelets used to hold lanterns still ring the ceiling perimeter as well.) A large marble statue of Apollo stands in one corner of the room, an 1845 gift from the Honorable Edward Everett, a Massachusetts congressman most famous for having delivered the Gettysburg Address. It's true. The Hon. Everett's two-hour speech at the dedication of the Soldiers National Cemetery at Gettysburg was the keynote speech of the ceremonies. President Lincoln had been invited to the dedication to "add a few brief appropriate remarks" after the keynote speech. Brief though the President was, speaking for only two minutes, he was the more eloquent man by far.
Viewed from a choice vantage point, Apollo appears to be pointing at the Ether Dome's very special guest, the one our information lady friend referred to as Paddy. Or, more accurately, Padi.
His name meant "Gift of Hershef," Hershef being the god of both water and fertility. Perhaps his parents had long wanted a child. According to the translated hieroglyphs on Padihershef's sarcophagus, he was a stonecutter from Thebes. No king, no royal lineage, just an everyday blue-collar Egyptian worker who cut stone for the tombs of the City Of The Dead, an necessary job in such a death-oriented culture. He died in his late 40s and sent onward to his journey to "The Beautiful West." His tomb and mummified body was left undisturbed probably due to his status as a commoner; grave robbers had no need to plunder the meager treasures packed with the lower classes. They wanted the gold from the kings.
Padihershef was given to the museum by a wealthy merchant in 1823, one of the first mummies to be brought to America. He was also the first mummy to be put on a public display tour; adults were charged 25 cents and children 15 to see the mummy up close and personal. His 1823-1824 tour earned the hospital an amount of money roughly equivalent to a million dollars today. He was a superstar.
Upon his return to MGH, records indicate he was placed on display in the operating theater, so it's very likely he witnessed the 1846 operation. Not bad for a stonecutter.
Also on display is this skeleton, though there is no interesting story to his or her origin, identity, or career as an anatomic teaching aid.
Two dead things hanging around in a room also filled with rusty surgical implements and other unsettling medical devices began to eek me out just a bit. The Ether Dome was beautiful, restored and shiny and historical and pristine, but the silence and the dead gave the brightly-lit space such morbid undertones. It was great.
Wasn't what I expected, but it was great.
The stairway down was indeed covered with old pictures of the hospital, the Bullfinch Building, the old Harvard Medical School (built on pilings over the River Charles) and several formal pictures of hospital staff in their whites, names carefully written on each in that lovely old spidery pen nib handwriting. Grayson. McDonough. Adams. On one landing stood a noble Roman style bust of a revered and favorite Boston physician. His name I forget, but he had a few Js for initials. One landing below that was an elaborate wooden display, a "Roll of Honor" which listed the names of doctors, nurses, and employees lauded for their service and duty to the hospital through the years. Some of the names had been pried off the display. We didn't know why.
We saw one last ghost while leaving the hospital, a giant building-sized ad for Quaker Oats across Cambridge Street. People pass by this every day. They see it on their way to work, or as they try to navigate a way onto Storrow Drive. It's out in the open, exposed to the elements, and it's faded and gone and I'm sure the nice people at Quaker Oats have no desire to restore it. Nor would the building's owner. The Ether Dome inside Mass General Hospital is a secret, however. It's a rare gem, kept in excellent shape, recently renovated and quietly displaying its historical significance to anyone who dares go up and ask an easy question of the lady at the information booth.
And for your information, the Ether Dome is open to the public seven days a week from 9 AM to 8 PM, except when the ampitheatre is being used for a lecture. Glad to have been of assistance. Have a nice day, now.