Few operation, however minor, are undertaken today without some form of anaesthetic, either to produce complete unconsciousness or to render a part of the body insensitive to pain. Just over a hundred and fifty years ago anaesthetics were only just coming into use, and Sir James Young Simpson was one, perhaps the most notable, of the early pioneers. James Simpson was a scot, born the son of a baker at Bathgate, West Lothian, in 1811. He trained at Edinburgh University, and at age of 29 became a Professor of Midwifery there.

In the early 1840’s many scientists in various parts of the world were becoming interested in the use of anaesthetics. As far back as 1799 the English chemist and physicist Sir Humphry Davy had noted that nitrous oxide seemed capable of destroying pain. About 1844 Horace Wells, and American dentist, used this anaesthetic for extraction of teeth. Also around this time Crawford Long, William Morton and other Americans were using ether as an anaesthetic. As news of this work came to Britain, ether came to be used for surgical operations. The first major operation in Britain under ether was conducted by Robert Liston at the University College Hospital, London, in December 1846.

In 1831 a substance was produced by various chemists (Guthrie, Soubeiran and Liebig), which came to be called chloroform. It was brought to the attention of James Simpson, who, although he had previously tried ether, had thought it generally unsuitable for use in midwifery. Chloroform, however, proved much more promising. Late in 1847 James Simpson carried out an experiment with his friends, trying the effects of the anaesthetic by inhaling it. The result was that they were soon all lying unconscious around the room. About the 15th November 1847 he administered chloroform for a surgical operation. In the years that followed he frequently used chloroform to reduce the pain during childbirth. At first there was criticism of using anaesthetics for midwifery, but the techniques gained official recognition in 1853 when John Snow administered chloroform to Queen Victoria during the birth of Prince Leopold.

James Simpson was a man of wide interests, both inside and outside his chosen profession. He made many innovations in the practice of midwifery, though, rather surprisingly, he attacked the practice of using antiseptics as put forward by Lord Lister.

James Simpson died in 1870. His chief monument was the Simpson Maternity Hospital.

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