Sir James Young Simpson and the Chloroform

Sir James Young Simpson, 1st Baronet (18111870)

On November 12, 1847, Scottish obstetrician and important figure in the history of medicine Sir James Young Simpson published his self trial experiments with the new anesthetic chloroform.

“All pain is per se and especially in excess, destructive and ultimately fatal in its nature and effects.” (James Young Simpson)

Simpson was born in Bathgate near Edinburg, West Lothian, Scotland, as the seventh son and eighth child of an impecunious bakerSimpson attended the University of Edinburgh from the age of only 14, graduating at the age of 18 but, as he was so young, had to wait two years before he got his license to practice medicine. In 1838 he designed the Air Tractor, the earliest known vacuum extractor to assist childbirth but the method did not become popular until the invention of the ventouse over a century later. At the age of 28 he was appointed to the Chair of Medicine and Midwifery at the University of Edinburgh, here he became a pioneer in obstetrics and gynecology.

He improved the design of obstetric forceps that to this day are known in obstetric circles as “Simpson’s Forceps” and, like German physician Ignaz Semmelweis, fought against the contagion of puerperal sepsis. His most noted contribution should be the introduction of anaesthesia to childbirth. Simpson, unlike most medical men of his day, was quite concerned about the pain his patients suffered during childbirth, and searched for ways to alleviate it. While visiting London, he met with the surgeon Robert Lister, who praised the use of ether as an anesthetic in a recent operation. Already in 1799, Sir Humphry Davy used nitrous oxide (laughing gas) as the first anaesthetic. Ether, however, was not conducive for obstetrics, so Simpson continued to experiment with different chemical compounds.[3]

In 1847, the same year he was appointed physician to Queen Victoria while she was visiting in ScotlandSimpson discovered the anesthetic properties of chloroform. Together with two of his friends, Drs Keith and Duncan, Simpson used to sit every evening in his dining room to try new chemicals to see if they had any anaesthetic effect. On 4 November 1847 they decided to try a ponderous material named chloroform that they had previously ignored. On inhaling the chemical they found that a general mood of cheer and humour had set in. But suddenly all of them collapsed only to regain consciousness the next morning. Simpson knew, as soon as he woke up, that he had found something that could be used as an anaesthetic. It was very much by chance that Simpson survived the chloroform dosage he administered to himself. If he had inhaled too much and died, chloroform would have been seen as a dangerous substance, which in fact it is.

Simpson was the first to utilize chloroform as an anesthetic to ease the pain of childbirth. This practice was initially opposed by the Church because it tampered with the Divine Order. According to Genesis the pain of childbirth was the Lord’s punishment on womankind for Eve eating the apple from the tree of knowledge. The controversy surrounding this practice quickly disappeared after Queen Victoria used chloroform to help her deliver Prince Leopold in 1853.[3] But, Simpson’s medical contributions extended beyond obstetric anaesthesiaSimpson pioneered the uterine sound, long forceps,  wire sutures, and improved statistical analysis of operative outcomes. He wrote important memoirs on fetal pathology and hermaphroditism, and made contributions to the fields of archeology and medical history.

Simpson was honoured with a first baronet in 1866. He died four years later in 1870 at the age of 59 in his home. The day of his funeral was declared a day of public mourning in Edinburgh and two thousand people followed his hearse through streets lined by over 30,000 mourners.[2]

At yovisto, you can watch a TED talk given by Dr. Stuart Hameroff, a clinical anesthesiologist, who has studied how anesthetic gas molecules selectively erase consciousness via delicate quantum effects on protein dynamics. In his talk “Do we have a quantum Soul?“, Hameroff explored the theoretical implications for consciousness to exist independent of the body.

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