James Young Simpson


(1811-1870, Pioneer of anaesthesia)

These days, when someone pours a dodgy toxic liquid onto a handkerchief, puts it to their face and inhales it before collapsing to the floor, we call it teenage solvent abuse.

In 1847, though, James Young Simpson did precisely that and discovered just how effective chloroform could be.

Whether his first words on regaining consciousness were, "Wow man, what a buzz!" is not, unfortunately, recorded, but he was obviously impressed.

Simpson did not, as many mistakenly believe, "discover" chloroform. The drug was already undergoing trials in France at the time of his experimentation.

He did, however, pioneer its use as a clinical anaesthetic and was using it on patients in his practice at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary within two weeks of his own self-inflicted test.

The alleviation of physical pain and suffering had been Simpson's lifelong preoccupation and he was particularly obsessed with finding a means of sending patients to sleep to avoid the worst agonies of childbirth and the sheer terror of surgery.

Now he had it.

Strange as it may now seem, his breakthrough was not universally welcomed and Simpson fought a long and bitter battle against the religious authorities who considered sleep-inducing drugs to be dangerous to religion, morals and health. Many people (but mostly men, we suspect), and not just the religious fanatics, considered it "unnatural" to alleviate the pain of childbirth, no doubt believing agony to be an important part of the whole life-giving experience.

Simpson pressed on regardless, insisting that "every operation without it is the most deliberate and cold-blooded cruelty" and the use of anaesthetic slowly but surely gained acceptance. The first baby born to a mother with benefit of the drug was named Anaesthesia in its honour, poor lass, and it finally gained full respectability when Queen Victoria took it during the birth of her sixth child, Prince Leopold, in 1853.

Simpson received worldwide recognition for his work and was showered with honours from all over Europe and America. He was made a Baronet in 1866, the first practising Scottish doctor to be so recognised. Not bad for a Baker's son from Bathgate.

In spite of his newfound fame and wealth, he continued to minister to rich and poor alike in his Edinburgh practice, and in addition to his championing of chloroform Simpson also found time to make notable advances in the fields of investigation, diagnosis and treatment in obstetrics and gynaecology. Blindingly obvious though it now is, he was also a leading advocate of patient isolation as a means of reducing the spread of infection and lowering hospital mortality rates.

Such was Simpson's stature, after he died his family were asked by the government, but refused, to allow his body to be buried in Westminster Abbey in the company of Kings and Queens.

Instead, the great man lies where he belongs, in Edinburgh, within Warriston Cemetery.

His name lives on today with Edinburgh's Simpson Memorial Maternity Hospital, and he would, we think, be chuffed to bits to know that generations of Edinburgh kids have been pleased to say, with a sense of vicarious pride, they were "a Simpson's baby."

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