American Medical Biographies/Jackson, Charles Thomas

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Jackson, Charles Thomas (1805–1880)

The life of Charles Thomas Jackson, chemist, mineralogist and geologist, interests us because he had to do with the discovery of the electric telegraph and, more especially, ether anesthesia.

Born at Plymouth, Massachusetts, June 21, 1805, he was descended from Abraham Jackson, one of the early settlers of that town, and on his mother's side, from Rev. John Cotton. While preparing himself for college his health failed and he made an excursion on foot through New York and New Jersey with several naturalists. Returning to Boston he studied medicine and graduated from the Harvard Medical School in 1829, having made a geological survey of Nova Scotia during the summer vacations. After graduating he spent three years in Europe pursuing his studies and making a pedestrian tour and assisting in autopsying the bodies of the victims of the cholera epidemic in Vienna, as a result publishing "Cholera in Vienna" in the Medical Magazine, Boston, for October, 1832. Returning to Boston in 1832 Jackson brought with him a large amount of electrical and philosophical apparatus and it so happened that Prof. S. F. B. Morse was a passenger on the same ship. Jackson claimed that he pointed out to Morse the essential and peculiar features of the electric telegraph, which was patented by Morse in 1840. Jackson had previously perfected a working model of such a telegraph but did not think it capable of being brought into general use. Later he got into a controversy with Morse as to priority.

Settling in the practise of medicine in Boston in 1833 Jackson devoted himself to practise until 1836, when he was appointed state geologist of Maine, his surveys occupying three years. Then he was made state geologist of Rhode Island, and in the following year held a similar position in New Hampshire, the last occupying him for another three years, the results of his labor appearing in a quarto volume in 1844. In that year he visited the southern shore of Lake Superior, explored the wilderness, and returning the next year, opened copper mines and made known to the world the rich mineral resources of that region.

As early as 1834 Jackson discovered that an alcoholic solution of chloroform brought into contact with a nerve renders it insensible to pain. Long before, he had experimented with laughing gas and in 1837, resuming his experiments, proved that a part of its effects was due to asphyxia. Some time previous to the winter of 1841–42, having received from a chemist some perfectly pure sulphuric ether, he administered a portion mixed with air to himself, and lost all consciousness, experiencing no disagreeable consequences, as had been the case when he had inhaled the impure ether unmixed with atmospheric air. His experiences were known to W. T. G. Morton (q. v.), a student of medicine in his office, and Jackson showed ether to Morton and demonstrated how to inhale it so that he might use it in dentistry. Morton then procured some ether, used it to extract teeth and finally administered the drug in the first case of surgical ether anesthesia at the Massachusetts General Hospital, October 16, 1846. It is to be noted that Jackson refused to be present on this occasion, although invited by the surgeon, Dr. J. C. Warren (q. v.), and showed no evidence that he appreciated the nature of the discovery until long after. In 1852 a memorial was presented to Congress, signed by 143 physicians of Boston and its vicinity, ascribing the discovery exclusively to Jackson. On the other hand a committee of the French Academy of sciences investigated the question and on their report the Monthyon Prize of 5,000 francs was divided equally between Jackson and Morton, the perpetual secretary of the academy saying that half of the prize was given to Jackson for the discovery of etherization and the other half to Morton, for the application of the discovery to surgical operations. Louis Napoleon conferred on Jackson the cross of the legion of honor and King Oscar of Sweden a gold medal that was struck expressly for him, while King Frederic William of Prussia gave him the order of the red eagle. He also received orders and decorations from the Sultan of Turkey and the King of Sardinia. In 1861 he published a "Manual of Etherization, with a History of the Discovery."

Among his scientific discoveries may be mentioned chlorine in meteoric iron; fossil fishes in the lower coal measure of New Brunswick; new trilobites in Newfoundland rocks; tin in ore from Los Angeles, California. He contributed numerous articles to the American Journal of Science and Arts and to foreign scientific journals; nearly 100 titles in all. The last seven years of Dr. Jackson's life were passed in retirement for his mind became deranged by the constant worry and anxiety caused by his many controversies.

He died August 28, 1880, having helped to confer two great blessings on humanity. The electric telegraph was made workable by Morse and etherization became practicable when Morton made it so. Jackson supplied essential knowledge and suggestions.

New Amer. Encyclop., Appleton, N. Y., 1866, vol. ix, 689.
Dict'n'y Amer. Biog., F. S. Drake. 1872.
Two MMS. letters of C. T. Jackson to James Jackson on "The Cholera in Vienna, 1831–2," in Boston Medical Library.
Hist. Harv. Med. School, T. F. Harington, 1905, vol. ii, 604. Portrait.
Med. Mag. Boston, 1832, pp. 211–230.
The Introduction of Surgical Anaesthesia, R. M. Hodges, Boston, 1891.