Intended for healthcare professionals


A village medical mystery

BMJ 2006; 333 doi: (Published 21 December 2006) Cite this as: BMJ 2006;333:1296
  1. J Aelwyn Roberts, vicar, Haulfre Vicarage, Llandegai, Bangor (aelwynroberts{at}

    In the autumn of 1846, Boston dentist William Morton showed that ether could be used effectively as an anaesthetic. A few months later, an American paddle steamer, the Acadia, docked in Liverpool. In its cargo were precious gift packs of this newly discovered anaesthetic bound for three hospitals—University Hospital, London; Edinburgh Infirmary; and Penrhyn Quarry Hospital, Bethesda, north Wales.

    Why had our little quarry hospital been so honoured? After consulting archives and old newspapers, I have come to the following conclusion.

    I believe that the ether packs were addressed not to specific hospitals but to expert surgeons who worked in them—the famous Dr Liston at University Hospital, the famous Dr Simpson at the Edinburgh Infirmary, and the not quite so famous but equally dexterous Dr Hamilton Roberts at Penrhyn Quarry Hospital. These three men shared a common gift: they were reputed to be able to perform a thigh amputation in 60 seconds flat. Indeed, it was said that Dr Simpson could do it in 48 seconds.

    So the first operations on etherised patients in Britain were carried out in London, Edinburgh, and Bethesda, north Wales. In May 1847, the North Wales Chronicle reported: “An injured Welsh quarry man had his leg amputated within the sounds of the River Ogwen. Surgeon Hamilton Roberts in the presence of three local general practitioners, Drs. Pring, Richards and Churchill performed the operation. The revived patient's declaration that he had suffered no pain resounded through an astonished North Wales.” On this day the gruesome looking amputation table was mercifully declared obsolete.

    But this solves only half the mystery. How had the Bostonians who dispatched the ether heard of surgeon Hamilton Roberts in faraway Wales? Perhaps it was via the hundreds of north Wales quarrymen who emigrated to Boston in the 1840s.

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