Monday, November 4, 2013

This Day in History: Nov 4, 1847: Sir James Young Simpson discovers the anaesthetic properties of chloroform.

 File:Simpson James Young signature picture.jpg

Sir James Young Simpson, 1st Baronet (7 June 1811 – 6 May 1870) was a Scottish obstetrician and an important figure in the history of medicine. Simpson discovered the anaesthetic properties of chloroform and successfully introduced it for general medical use.

James Simpson was born in Bathgate,[1] West Lothian, the youngest of seven children, Thomas, John, Alexander, David, George (died young), and a sister Mary.

 Sir James Young Simpson

His parents were Mary Jarvey (also known as Jarvie) and David Simpson, originally a baker in Bathgate who became an accountant in the Bathgate branch of the Royal Bank of Scotland.[2] James received his initial education at the local school, but because of his obvious abilities his father and brothers (his mother died when he was 9) together paid for a college education and he entered the University of Edinburgh when he was 14 years old. He became a Licentiate in 1830 before graduating in 1832 with an MD.[3] He was appointed Professor of Midwifery (which would now be called Obstetrics) at the University of Edinburgh and physician to Queen Victoria.

 Sir James Young Simpson & Wainhouse (or Muirhouse)

Simpson's name at birth was "James Simpson", as recorded at his baptism on 30 June. It is unknown why he formally adopted the middle name "Young". One theory is that, as a very young professor, he was flaunting his youth in front of his older peers or alternatively that he was known by the affectionate nickname of "Young Simpson" and decided to incorporate it into his name.

 Sir James Young Simpson

Simpson completed final examination at the age of 18 but, as he was so young, had to wait two years before he got his license to practice medicine. At the age of 28 he was appointed to the Chair of Medicine and Midwifery at the University of Edinburgh. He improved the design of obstetric forceps that to this day are known in obstetric circles as "Simpson's Forceps" and, like Semmelweis, fought against the contagion of puerperal sepsis. His most noted contribution was the introduction of anesthesia to childbirth.

Simpson's intellectual interests ranged from archaeology to an almost taboo subject at the time: hermaphroditism. He was a very early advocate of the use of midwives in the hospital environment. Many prominent women also consulted him for their gynaecological problems.

 File:House of James Young Simpson, Queen Street, Edinburgh.jpg
 Inscription for Sir James Young Simpson

It was his achievements and wide ranging interests that led to his town house at 52 Queen Street, Edinburgh being a gathering point for many members of society, especially intellectuals. His impish sense of humour got the better of him on at least one of these occasions when he seated a Southern U.S. slave owner next to a freed slave at the dinner table. Since this town house was fairly busy at times, Simpson preferred to keep his wife and children at their country house near Bathgate. In religion Simpson was a devout adherent of the Free Church of Scotland, but he refused to sign the Westminster Confession of Faith, because of what he believed to be its literal interpretation of the book of Genesis.[4]

Sir James Young Simpson, 1811 - 1870. Discoverer of chloroform

Obstetric anaesthesia

 File:Humphry Davy Engraving 1830.jpg

Sir Humphry Davy used the first anaesthetic in 1799, nitrous oxide (laughing gas). Robert Liston's ether was initially dismissed as an anaesthetic because it irritated the lungs of the patients. In 1847, Simpson discovered the properties of chloroform during an experiment with friends in which he learnt that it could be used to put one to sleep. Dr Simpson and two of his friends, Drs Keith and Duncan used to sit every evening in Dr Simpson's dining room to try new chemicals to see if they had any anaesthetic effect.

 Chroloform bottles.

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. They soon had Miss Petrie, Simpson's niece, try it. She fell asleep soon after inhaling it while singing the words, "I am an angel!".[5] There is a prevalent myth that the mother of the first child delivered under chloroform christened her child “Anaesthesia”; the story is retailed in Simpson’s biography as written by his daughter Eve. However, the son of the first baby delivered by chloroform explained that Simpson’s parturient had been one Jane Carstairs, and her child was baptized Wilhelmina. “Anaesthesia” was a nickname Simpson had given the baby.[6]

 A drawing of the effects of liquid chloroform on Sir James Young Simpson and his friends.

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.[7] Conversely, if Simpson had inhaled slightly less it would not have put him to sleep. It was his willingness to explore the possibilities of the substance that set him on the road to a career as a pioneer in the field of medicine.

Death and memorials

 File:Chickamauga 2009, Chloroform.jpg

Simpson was created a Baronet, of Strathavon in the County of Linlithgow, and of the City of Edinburgh, in 1866.[8] He died at his home in Edinburgh in May 1870 at the age of fifty-eight. A burial spot in Westminster Abbey was offered to his family, but they declined and instead buried him closer to home in Warriston Cemetery, Edinburgh.[9] However, a memorial bust can be found in a niche at Westminster Abbey in London. On the day of Simpson's funeral, a Scottish holiday was declared, including the banks and stock markets, with over 100,000 citizens lining the funeral cortege on its way to the cemetery, while over 1,700 colleagues and business leaders took part in the procession itself.

 File:James Young Simpson statue.jpg

The Simpson family gifted the town house at 52 Queen Street to the church in 1916. Since then the building has been through many uses including being requisitioned by the army during the Second World War and being used as a centre for training Sunday School teachers in the 1950s. Today, the town house is the premises of a charity called Simpson House, which provides a counselling service for adults and children affected by alcohol and drug use.[10] There is a plaque on the wall outside to mark the house as having been the home of James Young Simpson from 1845 to 1870.

File:James Young Simpson grave.jpg

The Quartermile development, which consists of the Old Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh, named its main residential street Simpson Loan in his honour.

File:Dr.James Young Simpson memorial plaque, St. Giles.jpg File:Princes St Gardens James Young Simpson.jpg


1.        Jump up ^ Scotland's People; Old Parish Records – Births ref.662/ 0020 0201
2.        Jump up ^ Great Britain. Parliament. House of Lords (1861). Journals of the House of Lords, vol. 93. H.M. Stationery Office. pp. 332–. Retrieved 6 May 2012.
3.        Jump up ^ "Sir James Young Simpson". Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved 23 August 2013.
5.        Jump up ^ Gordon, H. Laing (2002-11). Sir James Young Simpson and Chloroform (1811–1870). The Minerva Group, Inc. p. 108. ISBN 978-1-4102-0291-8. Retrieved 11 November 2011.
6.        Jump up ^ Defalque, Ray J.; Wright, Amos J. J: The Myth of Baby “Anaesthesia”. Anesthesiology. September 2009 - Volume 111 - Issue 3 - p 682. doi:10.1097/ALN.0b013e3181b2800f [1]
7.        Jump up ^ T. K. Agasti (1 October 2010). Textbook of Anaesthesia for Postgraduates. JP Medical Ltd. pp. 397–. ISBN 978-93-80704-94-4. Retrieved 15 September 2013.
8.        Jump up ^ The London Gazette: no. 23064. p. 511. 30 January 1866.
9.        Jump up ^ For a photograph of his gravesite, see Baskett, T. F. "Edinburgh connections in a painful world". Retrieved 2008-09-29.

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