March 3, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Amy Ringrose
4th November 2021

November 4th, 1847
The evening has drawn in quickly, the bitterness of winter biting at your ankles as you cross Queen Street under the pale, hissing watch of a gaslamp. Standing before the door of your final destination, you raise a hand to make your presence known; to be permitted into the inviting atmosphere you know for certain lies beyond. A waft of warmth and laughter washes over you as the door is opened with a sigh, and you are enveloped with exclamations of welcome. You anticipate another energetic evening as per your host’s reputation – an odd but intelligent man, with a surprise in store…

On the 4th of November 1847, a man named Sir James Young Simpson held a party at his home for himself and two of his assistants – James Matthews Duncan and Dr George Skene Keith. However, this party was unlike most you would attend. Simpson and his assistants would sit every evening in his dining room and breathe in chemicals that they thought may be of use – for Dr Simpson was a physician and obstetrician, with a particular interest in anaesthesia. His home in Edinburgh served as an experimentation space for himself and his assistants when testing new chemicals for any anaesthetic effects, with the hope they might discover one better to use than nitrous oxide or ether – which was odorous and explosive – and improve medical practice going forward.

This particular night – after obtaining a sample from local pharmacist William Flockhart – the three physicians inhaled the chemical trichloromethane, known commonly as chloroform. Firstly feeling a cheerful, humorous mood, the trio then collapsed into unconsciousness until the following morning. On waking, Simpson immediately felt that this new chemical could be harnessed as an anaesthetic and began pushing for its use in medical operations and procedures, most ardently for during childbirth.

Although not the first to use chloroform, it was his insistence on its potential for use in medicine that set him apart. Those before him had never discovered the extent to which chloroform could be used, and there was much social stigma around the morality and safety of its use during childbirth, a common attitude regarding anaesthesia at the time.

This stigma was somewhat understandable, as chloroform was and remains to be a dangerous chemical to use – especially without proper training – which is why Simpson’s successful self-administered dose of chloroform was much by chance. Had he inhaled too little, he would have failed to be put to sleep; too much, and he could have died in the process

However, Simpson was an incredibly devoted professional, and advocated for its use until, in 1853, Queen Victoria gave birth to her son (Prince Leopold) and accepted chloroform as an anaesthetic. The Queen’s actions had a massive effect on the social and cultural narrative surrounding the chemical, and chloroform became a much more widely accepted practice than it had been previously. Simpson’s persistence on the use of these chemicals, his belief in a new, better method, was what set him apart from others and earned him recognition as a pioneer in the medical field, as well as being considered “the father of modern anaesthetics”.

Some eyewitness accounts suggest Simpson was already aware of chloroform’s properties before encouraging his assistants to test it out, preferring to indulge in the showmanship of the situation. Whatever his knowledge at the time, within days (the first instance being 8 November 1847) Simpson was successfully using chloroform on patients during childbirth, even despite the social stigma.

One piece of equipment used to administer patients with anaesthetic was an inhaler, containing wool soaked in the anaesthetic chemical. Designed in Edinburgh by Peter Stevenson, coincidentally only six months before Simpson’s discovery, the inhaler was originally intended for use with ether, the dominating anaesthetic at the time. However, after Simpson’s discovery the device was found to also be suitable for use with chloroform, with the moulded glass shape fitting over the face to allow patients to inhale the fumes from the chloroform-soaked balls of wool.

Image, Right:
Glass Inhalers for chloroform or ether, designed by Peter Stevenson, Edinburgh, Scotland.
1: 1847 | 2:c1850s | Amy Ringrose©, 2021

Amy Ringrose is the Web Editor for I,Science Online and is studying an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College London. Her academic background is in Global Health and Social Medicine, and has an interest in the history of science.