Jefferson, Georgia is on the road between Atlanta and Charlotte, NC. It is 49 miles from Downtown Atlanta and 14 miles from Athens, the home of the University of Georgia. It is the county seat of Jackson County. Athens was originally in Jackson County. During the boom times in northeast Georgia, the university's enrollment was exploding and many Jackson County families were experiencing sudden affluence. That is when the problem began.
Like in many towns across North America, economic prosperity created a relaxed social environment in which old rules were challenged and the young women and men partied to the wee hours. They experimented with substances that altered their personality and perception. At first the drug of choice was alcohol. Georgia then had no laws restricting the consumption of either alcoholic beverages or tobacco products by teenagers. Alcohol could be consumed in a dozen different ways and was readily available. It was quite common for church socials and revivals to include liberal consumption of apple jack and peach brandy, before and after. However, perhaps because its consumption was so widespread in the community, the young people grew tired of it.
Then a new drug appeared on the singles scene in northeast Georgia. Rather than being drunk or smoked, it was inhaled. The drug had been discovered in 1772 by the English chemist Joseph Priestly. He called it phlogisticated nitrous air. Priestly proposed that it be used as a treatment for tuberculosis. Nothing came of that idea, but the substance eventually became a recreational drug, known for its capacity to eliminate inhibitions and provoke clown-like behavior. According to Dr. Harris Stratyner, regional vice president at Caron Treatment Center in New York, inhaling phlogisticated nitrous air causes people to experience a euphoric, dissociated, out-of-body state.
During the boom times, Priestly’s drug and a similar one called sulfuric ether found their way to the University of Georgia, and then spread outward to the youth in nearby towns. In 2012 recreational use of this drug made national headlines when actress Demi Moore was hospitalized after inhaling too much phlogisticated nitrous air. The drug currently goes by two other names, nitrous oxide or laughing gas.
Perhaps it should be explained that the “boom times” in Jefferson, GA were in the 1830s and 1840s. During that period, the University of Georgia almost tripled its student enrollment from 54 students to 148. In 1842 Atlanta was named Terminus. It contained six buildings and 30 residents. You see, back then, Jefferson was the "Big Apple" of northeast Georgia. Fortunately, most of its historic buildings escaped the ravages of the Civil War.
Experiments with recreational drugs
Crawford Williamson Long was born in 1815 on a prosperous plantation in Madison County, GA. He was the cousin of John Henry “Doc” Holliday, who then lived in Griffin, GA, but was to achieve fame in Tombstone, AZ. When the Madison County Academy (private high school) appeared to have no further knowledge to teach him, Long applied at the age of 14 to the University of Georgia. Five years later, he received his Master of Arts Degree and then enrolled in the medical program at Transylvania College in Kentucky. After one year, he transferred to the prestigious medical program at the University of Pennsylvania. There he was taught by some of the leading physicians of that time and exposed to state of the art knowledge.
As part of the curriculum at the University of Pennsylvania, Long was required to both observe and participate in surgical procedures. Unless the patient was comatose or in a stupor from opium derivatives, surgery was a horrific experience that caused extreme pain. It was not uncommon for patients to die of shock from the pain. As a result, most doctors avoided surgery. This is when Long began to search the scientific literature for a substance that would alleviate pain without the addictive effects of opiates.
After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in 1841, Dr. Crawford Long set up a practice in the quickly growing town of Jefferson. Almost immediately his services were required to stitch wounds incurred by the patients, who were high on laughing gas. He noticed that the patients felt no pain. While at the University of Georgia he had earlier observed students at laughing gas parties receive nasty bruises in accidental falls, but claim to feel no pain.
Apparently, in his first year of medical practice, Long was already experimenting with nitrous oxide or laughing gas. He found it effective for stitching minor cuts and removing teeth, but inadequate for major surgery that penetrated the interior of the body. He continued to search the literature for alternatives to both opiates and nitrous oxide, until he stumbled upon sulfuric either. This gas did cause the patient to go completely to sleep and not feel any pain. It was a true anesthesia.
Long performed the first surgery under anesthesia in the world on March 30, 1842. A large tumor was removed from James Venable’s neck without the patient feeling any pain. Being also a true scientist, Long wanted to fully understand the use of sulfuric ether before announcing it to the world. He carefully experimented with dosages and application methods with patients. He also used it in the delivery of babies. All of his findings were carefully recorded. He openly discussed his findings with medical colleagues in northeastern Georgia and with friends, but did not publish them in a national journal for several years.
A few folks in Jackson County accused Long of practicing witchcraft. Some fundamentalist preachers issued fire-breathing sermons that accused the brilliant doctor of disturbing the natural order of things. The preachers believed that pain was God’s way cleansing the soul.
The December 1846 issue of the Medical Examiner ran an editorial about the claim of a dentist in Boston named William Morton that he used a magical gas to put a patient to sleep, while removing a tooth in September 1846. Morton refused to provide the chemical name of the substance, because he planned to apply for a patent. He called the anesthetic, Letheon, and received a patent for it under than name. In 1847 there were several more articles in professional journals, which correctly assumed that Letheon was sulfuric ether. Morton then requested that the United States Congress give him $100,000 as a reward for his service to humanity. Congress did not oblige him.
Crawford Long did not publish a description of his experiments with nitrous oxide and sulfuric ether until 1849. By then, William Morton had made sure that people around the world thought that he was the “discoverer of sulfuric ether.” Morton received an honorary medical degree in 1852, but did not have an formal education in medicine. Very soon thereafter tempers were heating up between the North and the South. Northerners did not want a Southerner getting credit for anything. It was only in the Twentieth Century that historians have finally agreed that Dr. Crawford W. Long, indeed, was the first doctor to use anesthesia in surgery.
Crawford W. Long Museum
The 1858 Pendegrass General Store building in Downtown Jefferson, had been adapted to become the Crawford W. Long Museum. It is part of the Downtown Jefferson National Historic District. The museum contains a reproduction of an American doctor’s office in the 1840s, an apothecary and exhibits on the history of anesthesiology. The museum’s website is www.crawfordlong.org .
Jackson County was formed in1796. It has a very rich Native American and Antebellum history. The town of Jefferson was originally named Thomocoggan. This name is intriguing because it is also the name of a tribe located near the French colony of Fort Caroline on the South Atlantic Coast in the 1560s. The name of the Timucua Indians is derived from this word. Jackson County also contains many stone ruins which appear to have been built prior to the arrival of Anglo-American settlers. These are still being studied, but a major section of one of the largest complexes may seen by the general public at Sandy Creek Park on the border between Jackson and Clarke Counties.