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First operations performed 'without pain'

By Henry Timman • Apr 12, 2019 at 12:00 PM

Ether as a painless anesthetic was first demonstrated publicly in 1846. The following year a young doctor settled in Norwalk and  advertised that “All operations in Surgery or Dentistry will now be conducted without pain.” Whether or not he had ether to use isn’t revealed by my research, but perhaps he did use it for his painless surgery. We must remember that in 1847 very little surgery was performed, and dentistry was out as crude a procedure as surgery.

I’m referring to Dr. William Atkinson, who arrived in Norwalk as early as March of 1847 with his wife and young children and established an office in the Mansion House Hotel, which stood where the Chamber of Commerce office now stands at 10 W. Main St.

Dr. Atkinson had been born in Newtown, Pa., and studied medicine in Meadville and at Willoughby University, coming to Norwalk soon after being graduated from there. In those days most doctors also practiced dentistry, which then consisted mainly of pulling a tooth after a patient had tried every home remedy available. Dr. Atkinson was awarded an honorary  degree from the Ohio College of Dentistry in 1859.

Just two months after coming to Norwalk he performed what was then a major surgery. A Fremont woman suffering from breast cancer, and Dr. Atkinson removed the diseased area. He was assisted by Drs. Wilson and Sebring of Fremont, and Dr. Peck of Cleveland. A newspaper account of the incident says the operation took just two minutes and 30 seconds with a loss of only 4 ounces of blood. A few days later the lady was reported to be comfortable and approaching a rapid recovery. I could find no information as to her future health.

A few months later Dr. Atkinson announced he planned to stay in Norwalk and established an office opposite the Mansion House Hotel on West Main, where he would continue to provide painless surgery and dentistry.

In 1853 a traveling dentist stopped in Norwalk, met up with Dr. Atkinson and convinced him to move to Cleveland. There he became a leader in improved dental methods, especially working with fillings. He was known as a tireless researcher and writer, contributing much to dental literature.

Dr. Atkinson was elected the first president of the American Dental Association, and also helped form the Northern Ohio Dental Association. He continued to practice in Cleveland until 1861, when he again moved his family, to New York City. There he passed away in 1891.

Cleveland dentists adopted the use of ether as an anesthetic in January of 1847, and it is possible the Dr. Atkinson used it here in Norwalk, also. One of the Cleveland dentists mentioned as a pioneer in improved tooth care was Dr. M. L. Wright, who had originally settled in the town of Huron. 

Both Dr. Atkinson and Dr. Wright along with their contemporaries, spent a good deal of their time devising methods and equipment to make life a bit easier for us.

Speaking of life, this column begins my 48th year of writing a weekly vignetter for the Reflector. I never supposed this gig would last so long, but  now am optimistic that in 2022 I can write a 50th anniversary chapter of local history.

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REMEMBER: My “Just Like Old Times” books are on sale at New Directions Design, 20 W. Main St., in downtown Norwalk. These contain my earlier columns fully indexed and in permanent book form.

Henry Timman, an authority on Firelands history, resides in rural Norwalk.

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