As free as the air

Dr Roshan Radhakrishnan

In 1845, a dentist stepped onto the spotlight at the revered Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. He wanted to show his medical brethren something unique, something unheard of back then in the field of surgery.

He wanted to show them how the world could finally be rid of pain.

The young man - at thirty, that’s all he really was – had performed this miracle successfully for over a year prior to this moment. In fact, history notes that he tested it on himself first successfully before trying the drug on his patients. In the one year he had been using the drug, he never considered patenting it even once. In his words, pain relief was meant to be ‘as free as the air’. The stage was set for the greatest advance in surgical history – the discovery of anaesthesia and pain relief.

It was a soul crushing failure.

Unnerved by an audience of his seniors and an uncooperative patient, he administered too little of the drug and the patient screamed in pain at the first incision. He had to leave the hall to boos and chants of “Humbug!” and was discredited by the medical community.

Horace Wells was looking to heal mankind. So traumatized was he by the tears of his patients that he considered giving up dentistry. Instead, he chose to create a cure for his fellow men. He refused to believe in the edict that a human being should writhe in pain during surgery, something that was a given from the days of surgical procedures in the holy lands of Benaras in India where Sushruta first conducted operations over twenty four hundred years ago. 

The drug he studied and used on himself was none other than nitrous oxide a.k.a. laughing gas, used even today in operation theatres and dental practices across the globe. He wanted to rid the world of pain and was instead ostracised and isolated for a single failure. No one came to console him or give him a second chance. His associate would eventually give a successful demonstration of another drug at the same hall barely two years later and become known forever as the one who changed the world of surgery, further accentuating the failure of Wells. The scars of  his failure would haunt him forever, resulting in him withdrawing from the public and eventually taking his own life three days after his thirty third birthday.

One hundred and sixty nine years have passed since that day in Boston. And yet, people are still alone even today in their moments of failure, are they not? We still shun and ridicule someone who tries to do something and fails at it, branding them with our virtual hot-irons.
And yet, I see glimmers of hope. Where earlier, you would be handcuffed to your failures and left alone in the darkest corners of your mind, now the ones who are willing to give you a second chance come forward. They are often not your peers, perhaps not even the friends you hoped to see. No, they are the common people of the world who now have a voice. They are the online community whose boundaries exist only in their thoughts and hearts.

When Wells failed, surely there were well-wishers somewhere who felt sorry for him; people who had heard of his feat and even been treated successfully by his wonder drug. They could not let him know they cared for him when it mattered… they could not inspire him to try again.

They could not tell him that they believed in him.

Today, the boundaries that divide us are much the same as they were back then: geographical lines drawn on roads, political lines drawn in the heads of leaders and religious ones drawn in hearts that fear various iterations of prayer. These are lines that have sustained for centuries. And yet, humanity is breaking through. 

When a young girl was mercilessly gunned down by extremists for the crime of wanting to learn about the world, we did not see her as a nationality or a religion. We saw her as a human being who was wronged and we prayed for her. Indians, forever locked in a battle with her country of origin, did not smile with glee at the possible demise of ‘their enemy’. They joined the rest of the world in praying to all four crores deities in attendance above for a girl who was wronged for being right. They voiced their outrage and belittled the monsters with guns as she teetered between life and death and eventually rejoiced with sweets as she made it through the horror. Neither had she met these people nor had they heard of her prior to that day but they came together for a common cause which had no boundaries: humanity.

It was because Malala Yousafzai was not the enemy we fear at our borders. She represented the good in us all – a human being asking for the right to equality for girls everywhere – and she nearly paid the price for it. Even a decade ago, she could have been a young adolescent in an unmarked grave somewhere in that land. Today, she is a survivor and a role model for millions – the youngest Nobel laureate – who knows that her efforts are not in vain. The struggle may not be over but she need only log onto the virtual world and see for herself how she has made a difference in people’s mindsets all over the world. Her sharing the Nobel Peace Prize with Kailash Satyarthi is surely from the pages of a Bollywood script – an Indian and a Pakistani breaking the barriers of nationality, religion and even generations (she was not even born when Satyarthi started on his mission) to defeat world rulers and leaders and become beacons of hope. 

Image Source: here & here
Horace Wells memorial at Cedar Hill Cemetary.
Note the significance of the words. 

It remains one of the best examples of a monument 
at a cemetary that chooses to inspire rather 
than remind us of the sorrow of the man within.
At the back lies a profound dedication
"Horace Wells, Discoverer of Anaesthesia"
They have suffered and lost a lot along the way – but they have persevered because of the love and respect they garnered from across the world for their endeavours. That was something that was impossible for the common man even two decades ago, let alone seventeen.

In our journey of humanity, we have let down a lot of people who meant to do good for us. We could not be there to rally them when they needed us most – to inspire them to inspire us.

Horace Wells died believing he was a failure. We, in the medical field, celebrate him as the discoverer of modern anaesthesia. He felt he let us down. The truth is, we let a good man down that day. It is a mistake that has the possibility to recur even today… a mistake that we, as the common man and woman, have the chance to subvert in today’s day and age. 

Wells wanted pain relief to be as free as the air. Today, his vision is a reality. Physical pain relief is available for all, from leader to labourer. Giving hope to people and relieving their mental pain? That is a tool that is in your hands… one that you can activate from wherever you are right now, just by your virtual words of inspiration and encouragement.

Your words too are ‘as free as the air’. 
Unlike you, they can be at a million places at once, in households across the planet. You thus have a power that not even Alexander or Akbar had at their peak. You can cross boundaries instantly .
You never know who your words can reach, touch or even inspire. Use this power wisely.

Use it to be a healer.   

Authors note: 
This post is a part of “Beyond Boundaries” at in association with INK 2014. It is written with the help of the young and vivacious Sushmita who sits snugly in the country's capital as I type this from God's Own Country. 

Update: (29 Oct 2014) This post won me first prize in the contest.

Update: (4 Nov 2014) Here's the post on the INKTALKS conference I attended.

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Let me know what you think.

  1. Roshan,
    "As free as the air" sounds great!
    Like my favourite, "Fly! Fly! Fly!!!"


    1. Haha.. true. It is deeply poignant, simple words though it may be. A lot of our history is actually seeped in tragedy for the discoverers...

  2. pramila r kOctober 18, 2014

    great....all the best!

  3. Our lecturer had narrated to us this story at our first Oral Surgery class in AB Shetty. Wish more people knew about this.

    1. I know... its a story that really deserved more credit... so close yet so far...

  4. Very thoughtful post - I appreciated learning something new, as well as hearing your perspective. Thank you for sharing your insights.

    1. Glad you liked it Laurel... I feel we let down so many pioneers in the past. Tesla is another noteworthy example..

  5. I didn't know about the firs oral surgery...It was interesting to read...and the post as a whole too throws light into something very pertinent...My take away is it's not so hard to look at each other as humans , if only we tried a little harder...I know we have it in us

    Random Thoughts Naba - Found You!

    1. Exactly... how many more inventors and thinkers have we shunned and driven away just when they were at the cusp of changing our lives for the better... its something that can be truly haunting...

  6. The very thought that surgeries or any treatment should be painless and that it should be 'free as air' itself can be thought of only by a person who has thoughts and ambitions that are as free as air.

    1. yup. History notes him as being someone truly selfless and determined to make a difference. He almost did too. His failure in today's day and age would have been but a momentary miss, something that could have been corrected with the aid of colleagues. But back then, everything was different and a good man was indeed lost.

  7. i was expecting something else, as the title promised. but this is really beautiful. thanks for enlightenment and knowledge.

    1. Glad you liked it. Haha.. sorry, no free gifts on offer here :)

  8. There is so much goodness in people, if only we were not blinded by our egos the world would be a much better place. Good one, Doc. :-)

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