Posts Tagged ‘James Young Simpson’

Dr. Matthew Keith lifted the tumbler to his nose and sniffed its contents.

“Oh—that smells quite good,” Keith announced, placing the glass of chloroform back on the dining table. “How long before it takes effect?”

“Just a minute or two, I expect,” replied his friend, Dr. James Simpson.

Sure enough, Keith soon slumped to the floor, dead asleep.

“I’m next!” exclaimed Simpson to another friend, Dr. George Duncan, while grabbing the tumbler and taking a whiff of the chloroform.

Duncan followed suit and soon all three were fast asleep.

Such experiments were common in the Simpson home. Currently he and his friends were looking for a drug that could safely ease the pain of surgery, medical procedures, and childbirth.

At the time (1847), Simpson not only practiced obstetrics (called midwifery in those days), he was also Professor of Midwifery at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland.

No one would have expected such a respectable position for the seventh son of a baker. But the family somehow found the resources to send the whip-smart, fourteen-year-old James to university. By age 21, he’d graduated with honors and become a member of the Royal College of Surgeons at Edinburgh.

James Young Simpson, 1848

Success as an obstetrician came quickly, and Simpson married his sweetheart. He should have been happy and fulfilled; he was not. Simpson later explained: “I was living without God in the world.” He well knew about God and Jesus, because his mother had been a devout Christian.

One night he saw himself “standing on the brink of ruin, deserving nothing but hell’s destruction” because of his many sins. But he also saw Jesus his Substitute, dying on a cross for him. Simpson wept and claimed Jesus as his Savior [1].

The night of the chloroform experiment, Simpson had been practicing obstetrics for fifteen years. He desperately desired to find a drug capable of reducing his patients’ pain.

This new compound had come from the famous chemist, Lyon Playfair. His assistant had been conducting experiments with acetone and chlorine that showed great promise as a superior anesthetic to ether. Chloroform took effect more quickly, was affordable, easy to store and transport. It wasn’t noxious or flammable.

Lyon Playfair

Simpson wanted to try the new compound right there in Playfair’s shop. But the chemist insisted they administer doses to two rabbits first. The animals quickly fell asleep and awoke a while later, seemingly unharmed.  The next morning, however, they were dead.

Undeterred, Simpson purchased the compound so he and his colleagues, Keith and Duncan, could try the chloroform for themselves—just small doses that surely couldn’t cause harm to a grown man. At least that must be what they told themselves.

Thankfully the experiment succeeded. In addition, none of them experienced nausea or a headache—common side-effects of ether. They knew then that chloroform would transform the care that doctors could provide. 

Simpson was soon using it as a general anesthetic for his obstetric patients. That same year, 1847, he published a paper, “Account of a New Anesthetic Agent.”

Doctors all over Europe began alleviating their patients’ pain with chloroform, especially after Dr. John Snow gave controlled doses to Queen Victoria for the birth of Leopold in 1853. She described its effect as “soothing, quieting, and delightful beyond measure [2] .”

Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, and children, ca. 1855

Dr. Simpson’s research procured him a place in medical history. He was knighted and his coat of arms read, Victo dolore, “Pain conquered.”

But he had more conquests to pursue. Simpson turned his attention to the problem of infection, rampant in hospitals. He argued that if medical personnel washed their hands in chlorine before every examination, and instruments were sterilized, the spread of infection could be reduced [3].

Simpson also conducted research on the impacts of overcrowding and other practices in hospitals which raised mortality rates. He proposed improved hospital design, increased ventilation, and better management strategies. His suggestions met with opposition, but over time many of Simpson’s ideas were adopted. [4]

Victoria Hospital, 1899

Throughout the decades of his career, Simpson’s faith in Christ remained a life-changing influence.

In 1866, he wrote to his dear friend, Dr. Joseph Robertson: “Jesus has suffered all for us and done all, if we only trust Him in all . . . I know that you and I place all hopes and certainties indeed upon the same immutable foundation [5].

Simpson was once asked, “What do you consider your greatest discovery?”

His reply undoubtedly surprised many:

“My greatest discovery, which I made one Christmas Day, is that Christ is able to save to the uttermost any man who implicitly trusts Him [6].”


[1] https://gospelhallaudio.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/Sir-James-Simpson.pdf

[2] https://montrealgazette.com/opinion/columnists/the-right-chemistry-the-history-of-chloroform

[3] https://www.rcpe.ac.uk/heritage/college-history/james-young-simpson

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

Other sources:




James Simpson


Photo credits: 1. http://www.commons.wikimedia.org. 2. James Young Simpson, 1848 (http:11//creative commons.org/licenses/by/4.0/). 3. Lyon Playfair (V0027024 Lyon Playfair. Photograph by Lock & Whitfield, Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@http://wellcomeimages.org. 4 & 5. http://www.lookandlearn.com. 6. http://www.picryl.com. 7. rawpixel.com

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