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CSI:Boston - An Obstetric Anesthesiologist and an Infamous Murder Trial
Abstract Number: 77
Abstract Type: Other
Nathan Cooley Keep was the first to administer an obstetric anesthetic in America. On April 7, 1847, Dr. Keep delivered ether to Ms. Fanny Appleton Longfellow, the wife of the famous poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. It is without question that Dr. Keep’s initiative to deliver the USA’s first obstetric anesthesia is instrumental in the evolution of our subspecialty. However, this anesthesia pioneer made a critical contribution to history as a medical expert and forensic scientist in one of the most sensational trials in American history.
The Parkman-Webster murder trial is sometimes coined the O. J. Simpson hearing of the nineteenth century. It included the ingredients of all suspenseful murder mysteries: an esteemed suspect, a wealthy, renowned victim, and shocking evidence. Dr. John Webster, a mild-mannered, well-known Chemistry professor at Harvard Medical School, was accused of murdering Dr. George Parkman, Webster’s Medical School colleague and financier. Parkman, a prominent physician and upstanding member of Boston society, disappeared in November 1849 after a meeting with Webster to discuss his debt. The Boston police searched extensively, but unsuccessfully, for Parkman. The Medical School’s janitor, who lived below the anatomy laboratory, discovered human remains buried deep in the depths of Webster’s laboratory at Harvard. The notorious remains included a human pelvis, lower extremity bone fragments, and a jawbone with teeth.
The prosecution utilized none other than Dr. Nathan Cooley Keep as a key witness in the testimony against John Webster. Dr. Keep was a renowned expert in the field of dentistry, serving as the first dean of Harvard Dental School and manufacturing the first porcelain dentures. He was also George Parkman’s personal dentist and had fitted him with dentures several years prior. Parkman had a distinctive jaw (his nickname was “The Chin”) and Keep made him a special golden plate and bridge with his revolutionary artificial teeth, which did not combust in the furnace where they were found. In the trial Keep employed a plaster jaw cast and wax mold as forensic evidence to prove that the recovered teeth belonged to the victim. Opposing testimony for the defense came from Dr. William T. G. Morton, Keep’s former dental partner, and an infamous anesthetic pioneer in his own right, having conducted the world’s first public demonstration of ether for surgical anesthesia in 1846. Morton attempted to discredit Keep’s testimony by demonstrating that the dental remains would fit in other jaw molds, but Dr. Keep’s evidence was undeniable. This was the first trial in which forensic science and dental evidence were used to positively identify the murder victim and ultimately resulted in John Webster’s conviction. Webster was sentenced to death and was publicly hanged in Boston Common on August 30, 1850.
Loughlin KR. The Notorious John White Webster-Guilty or Innocent? J Am Coll Surg. 2002;195:234-40.