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James Young Simpson

Health and the People>Revolution in Surgery>James Young Simpson

What do we know about Simpson?

  • Dates: 1811- 1870
  • Place of Birth: Scotland
  • Background & Education: University of Edinburgh, Royal College of Surgeons Edinburgh
  • Career: Professor of Midwifery, University of Edinburgh, President of the Royal College of Physicians. In 1866 he was created a Baronet and in 1869 he received the freedom of the city of Edinburgh.
  • Famous Publications: Various lectures and articles including An Account of a New Anaesthetic Agent.

Contribution to Medicine

  • Simpson built upon the research of previous doctors:
    • Humphrey Davy identified nitrous oxide (laughing gas) as a possible anaesthetic in 1799. Unfortunately, he was mainly ignored when he chose a person who was unaffected by nitrous oxide for his public experiment in 1845.
    • Crawford, an American doctor, had long discovered the anaesthetic qualities of ether, but didn’t publish his work. The first public demonstration of ether as an aesthetic was carried out in 1846 by an American dental surgeon, William Morton. News quickly spread to Europe. It was effective and used by British surgeons. However, it was risky as ether is fairly explosive and an irritant.

Simpson was a Professor of Midwifery at Edinburgh University, and searched for a safe alternative to ether that women could take during childbirth. He began to experiment with other chemicals and tested them on himself.

In 1847 Simpson discovered the effects of chloroform. He found it easier to use than ether. It took effect more quickly and less was needed to achieve the same results.

In the early days of chloroform, patients died as it was difficult to set the right amount needed for different people. The most famous case was Hannah Greener who died in 1848 during an operation to remove her toenail.

After Queen Victoria gave chloroform the royal seal of approval when she used it giving birth to her 8th child in 1853, it was widely used to relieve pain during childbirth and in operating theatres.

Early anaesthetics actually led to a rise in death rates:

  • Surgeons tried more complex operations and took longer as their patients were anaesthetised.
  • Surgeons didn’t know that poor hygiene spread disease. They often wore the same coats for years which were covered in dry blood from previous operations. Operations were carried out in unhygienic conditions (sometimes the patient’s home) with dirty and unwashed instruments.
  • The period 1846-1870 is sometimes known as the ‘Black Period’ of surgery because of the rise in deaths.

Credits and attributions

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