The Ether Dome

By: Matthew Battles
March 28, 2009

Today, at long last, I saw the Ether Dome.

It’s not a fan remix of a Mad Max movie, nor is it a fancifully named head shop. One of Boston’s most neglected historic sites, the Ether Dome is the surgical theatre at Massachusetts General Hospital where the first demonstration of the use of ether in a medical procedure took place. It’s also a small gem of a conference hall in the heart of the Bulfinch building, a nineteenth-century granite pile buried deep within the leviathan that is Mass General today. And finally, it’s a bit of a wunderkammer as well, complete with a mummy and historic surgical implements in glass cases.

Although the room is on the National Register of Historic Places, it’s also a busy medical department’s working conference room. Visiting it means a furtive, self-guided tour of the back offices of the anesthesiology department, where biohazard warnings loom, superannuated equipment stands parked in fluorescent stillness, and lockers stand in desultory files along the walls.

The Ether Dome was gloomy when I entered–the room was empty and unused on a Saturday morning. Pale ranks of seats rose in shadow to the rim of the dome; up high, a bit of light leaked trough the cupola windows. Behind a little slatted door I found a control panel which allowed me to raise the window shades and open a louvered skylight, giving a soft glow to the surroundings.


The cupola’s vault copper-clad vault shone overhead.


Directly beneath it, I stood on the Ether Dome’s “stage,” a wooden floor at the base of a fan of terraces where narrow-backed seats stand in prim order. There’s a podium with a computer monitor; used regularly for professional conferences, the Ether Dome is tricked out with other amphitheatrical appurtenances such as stage lighting and an automatic projection screen. But at house right stood a glass cabinet with an ancient skeleton suspended within to watch the empty theater…


…while at the rear stands another case holding a mummy given to the hospital as an anatomy specimen:


Alone in the Ether Dome, I fiddled with the lights and the shades for awhile, making the room glow now cool, now amber. I climbed the steep stairs to the topmost tier, where I sat for a time, the louvered sunlight ascribing its slow arc.


I stared at the large oil painting at the head of the room, which depicts the ether demonstration of 1846:


…and I suddenly realized what a show it must have been. The theatricality of it; the quiddity and Q.E.D. dazzle of it! Surrounded by glowering medicos, the wide-eyed patient submits to vapors emitted by the glass globe of Dr. William Morton, a Boston dentist. As physicians watch from the tiers, the surgeon works swiftly to excise a growth from the now-insensible patient’s neck. 03-28-09_1204.jpeg
Bearded shamans in black wool; blood and white linen; medicine as performance art in the clement light of the Ether Dome.


Spectacles, Uncanny