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Making History

Sir James Young Simpson: Anesthesia Pioneer


Great medical discoveries are often the result of extensive experimentations with animals, in addition to willing and (hopefully) informed human subjects.


Sir James Young Simpson, a great pioneer in general anesthesia, however, took a more direct approach … experimenting on himself, a tactic that sometimes found him waking up, literally, under the table.


Born in 1811, the seventh son of a baker in Bathgate, Linlithgowshire, a small village near Edinburgh, Scotland, Simpson enrolled in the University of Edinburgh at the tender age of 14. He graduated with honors in 1830. He began his obstetrical practice in 1835 in Edinburgh, soon becoming Scotland’s most prominent obstetrician. Simpson was appointed professor of Midwifery at the University of Edinburgh in 1840. He was so deft in his practice that he was appointed one of Queen Victoria’s surgeons in Scotland in 1847. Simpson’s success as a surgeon and obstetrician was helped in no small part by a sparking personality and a tireless dedication to his practice.


Unfortunately for patients, this was a time before the advent of general anesthetics, and doctors the world over were searching for suitable compounds that would allow patients respite during surgical procedures.


In 1846, Simpson incorporated the use of ether, which had been discovered in America, into his practice, but he continued to experiment with various agents to find something more effective. So dedicated to finding better anesthetic agents were Simpson and his assistants that they would often end their day by inhaling various compounds to test their effectiveness.


Their breakthrough came on Nov. 4, 1847. The group inhaled chloroform, and all three soon passed out under the dining room table. Upon recovering, Simpson declared chloroform to be better and stronger than ether.


Despite Simpson’s delight with his new discovery, it was not without controversy. For several years, both the medical establishment and the clergymen of the day protested the use of chloroform. The physicians were won over by the success of the new drug, but the clerics deemed it “unnatural.” After several years, the tide turned, helped along when no less a personage than Queen Victoria herself took chloroform for the birth of her son in 1853. Indeed, the queen was so pleased with Simpson and his work with chloroform that she made him a baronet in 1866.


In addition to the discovery of chloroform as a general anesthetic, Simpson made other contributions to the practice of obstetrics, including the introduction of iron wire sutures and pioneering the use of long obstetric forceps. Two types of forceps that are still used for deliveries in this country are called “solid Simpson” and “open Simpson” forceps.


Simpson won much praise and many accolades over his career, which included a stint as president of the Royal College of Physicians from 1850 to 1852.


Simpson’s death in 1870 was marked by an official day of mourning in Edinburgh, a funeral entourage of about 2,000 and about 30,000 mourners lining the streets as he was transported to his final resting place. While Queen Victoria had proposed Simpson be laid to rest in a place of honor in Westminster Abbey, he opted for a simpler resting place in a grave at Warriston, Scotland, overlooking his beloved city of Edinburgh.

By Frank Kourt, Staff Writer







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