Sir James Young Simpson, pioneer in anaesthetics, died on the 6th of May, 1870.
Sir James Young Simpson is famous for his discovery of the anaesthetic qualities of chloroform and his championship of obstetric anaesthesia. He was a sensitive soul, with a lot of empathy for the patients he was cutting open and became very concerned about the pain they suffered. You can just imagine him saying, “Now ma’am, this will hurt me as much as yersel’, ye ken.” He was very successful in his quest to reduce the pain of surgery, for which we should all be extremely grateful. Less appreciative at the time was the Church, who accused him of interfering in the ‘Divine Plan’, but he had a ready answer for those soporific fools. Being not quite the seventh son of a seventh son, Simpson wasn’t at all the superstitious type. He had the Queen on his side tae.
Simpson’s many other valuable medical contributions included the use of uterine sound, dilatation of the cervix uteri in diagnosis, and ‘Simpson’s Pains’ in uterine cancer. In addition, Simpson introduced iron wire sutures and acupressure, a method of arresting haemorrhage, and developed the long obstetrics forceps that are named for him. He also wrote important documents on fetal pathology and hermaphroditism, introduced the terms ovariotomy and occydynia, and made contributions to the fields of archeology and medical history, particularly on leprosy. Not satisfied with all that, Simpson went on to conduct statistical investigations into the results of major operations. The result was ‘Hospitalism’, published in 1869. He pointed out that “The man laid on the operating table in one of our hospitals, is exposed to more chances of death than the English soldier on the field of Waterloo.” Simpson’s article led to major improvements in administration and contributed to the tearing down of many of the most offending European hospitals.
James Young Simpson began his life in humble circumstances. This seventh son of a baker was born on the seventh day of June, in 1811, in Bathgate Village, Linlithgow. Young James Young excelled in his studies and in athletics, although you wouldn’t credit that, had you seen him in later life. His parents could ill-afford it, but they sent him off to Edinburgh University, at the age of fourteen, where he studied under Robert Liston. Later, in 1830, Simpson became Licentiate of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh. Then, after working for some time as a village physician at Inverkop on Clyde, he returned to Edinburgh, where he received his medical doctorate, in 1832. Immediately after, on the basis of his brilliant thesis, ‘Death from Inflammation’, he was offered a post under Dr. John Thomson, the Professor of Pathology at the University.
In 1835, Simpson was made Senior President of the Royal Medical Society of Edinburgh and, by 1839, he was able to apply for the Chair of Obstetrics. The University was quite prepared to accept him, but there was one wee problemo – he wisnae married and the post was only supposed to go to a married man. Luckily for Simpson and many another married man since, he already had someone in mind (for a wife, that was) and so he got the post within a month. Lecturing in obstetrics had been somewhat neglected, but Simpson’s lectures soon attracted large numbers of students and his popularity reached such proportions, that he could soon count women from all over the world among his patients. As a teacher, he captivated his listeners with his performance, his knowledge, richness of details and his extraordinary memory.
Searching for some means of alleviating his patients’ suffering, Simpson came to hear of the American dentist, Morton, and his success with ether. Afterwards, he personally saw the value of ether, as used by the famous Scottish surgeon, Robert Liston. Simpson enthusiastically tried ether in obstetrics, but soon after, he began searching for an anaesthetic that was less of an irritant. The idea of using chloroform came from his chemist, David Waldie, another Scot, who had been a fellow student. Before Simpson’s pioneering use of chloroform, it was an ingredient of a number of remedies, but was contaminated to varying degrees by alcohol. Waldie developed a method of producing a purer preparation. Simpson made preliminary experiments, inhaling chloroform himself and trying it on his assistants, Matthew Duncan and George Keith. Then, on the 15th of November, 1847, Simpson gave the first public demonstration.
A few days later, Simpson published his classic ‘Account of a New Anaesthetic Agent’, which proved the superiority of chloroform over ether, beyond any reasonable doubt. Within weeks, it had almost universally displaced ether as a general anaesthetic. Not so astonishingly as some people might think, given the nature of religious fervour and male dominated society from as far back as the ‘birth of mankind’, Simpson was severely castigated by the Scottish Church for interfering in the ‘Divine Plan’. Instead of crediting him with saving countless women from avoidable pain, the Church said that putting women to sleep artificially was making it easier for the ‘Dark Powers’ to overwhelm them. Get this folks; the interpretation of the male dominated Christian Church was that, in the case of women, it was particularly heinous and insensitive to try to save them from feeling pain. After all, went the ‘Divine Absurdity’, wasn’t it said in Genesis, “In Sorrow shalt thou bring forth children”?
It didnae matter to the Church, of course, that throughout history, many other doctors had previously used hypnotism and narcotics to relieve pain, without censure. Simpson wisnae above quoting a wee bit scripture himsel’ and retaliated by cleverly firing back another bit of Genesis, “And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam and he slept; and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof.” One of Simpson’s fiercest opponents was the American surgeon, Henry Jacob Bigelow. Nevertheless, as you may know, Queen Victoria came to the rescue, sweeping away most of the criticism when she decided to use chloroform during the birth of Prince Leopold. What was good for the Queen was taken as, “That’ll dae fer me tae” and its use became the accepted fashion by Victoria’s adoring public.
After a productive life, during which he received many accolades, awards and honours, including a Knighthood and the freedom of the City of Edinburgh, Sir James Young Simpson died in that very city on the 6th of May, 1870. He was buried in Warriston Cemetery. As a measure of his popularity, around 1700 medical colleagues and public figures joined his funeral procession, and more than 100,000 people lined the route to the cemetery. He is remembered by the Simpson Memorial Maternity Pavilion in Edinburgh, together with a statue in Princes Street Gardens and a bust in Westminster Abbey, London.