Nixon Library Owns Rare Tintype of Crawford Long

Photograph of Crawford Long performing a mock amputation on a sedated patient

The University Archives owns a rare tintype of Crawford Long demonstrating the use of ether as an anesthetic. Long is credited with the first use of ether as an anesthetic in a surgical procedure.  In the early 1840’s, a new fad of inhaling “laughing gas” at parties had developed.  Dr. Long noticed that persons under the influence of ether at these parties literally felt no pain when falling.  It occurred to him to use ether to render surgery painless.  On March 30, 1842, Long used ether during the removal of a cyst on the neck of James Venable, who insisted he felt no pain.  This was four years before William Morton’s famous demonstration of chemical anesthesia at Massachusetts General Hospital.  Dr. Long’s claim was eventually verified, and he is now recognized as the discoverer of modern anesthesia, although he did not publish his findings or make them known to the medical profession.

The photographic image, probably made between 1855 and 1860, was staged to portray Dr. Long’s original discovery and use of anesthesia.  The image shows a surgeon ostensibly preparing to amputate, an anesthetist monitoring the patient’s pulse and administering ether on a cloth, and an assistant standing by with instruments.  The picture raises several interesting questions: first, which medical man in the photograph is Crawford Long, since other known likenesses of Long bear resemblances to both the surgeon and the anesthetist in the picture; and second, what does the lettering on the wooden box in the photograph mean?

Crawford Long was living in Athens, Georgia, probably at the time the ferrotype was made.  He operated a drug store and shared a practice with his brother, Robert, also a physician.  Long’s approximate age at the time the photo was made would have been between 39 and 45, making it more likely that Long is the surgeon in the picture.  Could the young man administering the ether be Robert Long?  His dress and posture in the photograph suggest that he is a medical professional, and the family resemblance to Long is strong.

The wording on the box in the foreground reads “Williamson” on the first line, “Temperane” on the second, and “Ga” on the third.  The box is evidently a shipping crate and the words on the side an address.  It is speculated that “Temperane” was a misspelling of “Temperance.”  There were three towns called Temperance in Georgia, one of them relatively close to Athens.  The wording appears reversed due to the process of producing a tintype, which resulted in a direct positive image that was reversed.  Tintypes were on thin sheet iron that had been lacquered black or chocolate brown.  Since they were on metal plates, they could not be corrected by turning them over.

The Crawford Long tintype, the only known photograph of Dr. Long, was discovered in 1986 by an antique dealer in Gainesville, Georgia, who purchased it from a descendant of Dr. Long.  It was purchased for the Nixon Library by Dr. Scott Smith, who found the rare tintype at a book fair in Austin, in honor of Dr. Maurice Albin, professor of anesthesiology at the Health Science Center and director of neuroanesthesiology at Medical Center Hospital and the VA Medical Center.

To view the tintype, contact Mellisa DeThorne at or 210-567-2470.