Born in Hartford, Vermont, he had become a dentist and was working in Hartford, Connecticut, when about 1840 he became interested in the possibility of using nitrous oxide (“laughing gas”) as a painkiller during tooth extration. In 1841 he formed a partnerhip with a Boston dentist, William T. G. Morton, who had been looking into ether as an anesthetic.
In December 1844, Wells had one of his own teeth extracted while under nitrous oxide and he extracted several more from patients without pain. However, when he attempted to demonstrate the gas’s efficacy for surgery at Harvard Medical School in 1845, it failed.
In 1846 Morton successfully demonstrated the use of ether first for tooth extraction and then for surgical operations at Massachusetts General Hospital. In December 1846, Wells published a claim in the Hartford Courant that he had discovered the anesthetic effect of both nitrous oxide and ether; in 1847 he elaborated his claims in a pamphlet. Morton, meanwhile, filed patent claims for ether, which was at once regarded as superior for protracted operations.
Wells moved to New York City, and continued his investigations into anesthetics. Jailed for creating a disturbance while under the influence of chloroform, he committed suicide.