On June 7th 1811 James Young Simpson was born at Bathgate in Linlithgow shire Scotland. He qualified as a doctor at the age of 21. As a student he was witness to a mastectomy and was so horrified at the suffering that the patient went through that he was close to changing his profession to a Clerk. His life as a student went on however, he was given anatomical lectures by the Dr Knox of Burke and Hare fame and completed his education to enter the world of midwifery and obstetrics.

James Young Simpson went on to become professor of midwifery at Edinburgh in 1840.

His life was it seems influenced by the mastectomy that he saw performed as a student and was very critical of the surgical profession. He is quoted as saying

“‘the man laid on an operating table in one of our surgical hospitals’ was ‘exposed to more chances of death than the English soldier on the field of Waterloo’198

Simpson started to use ether on January 19, 1847 in Edinburgh, Scotland. He disliked its strong smell so on the advice of Dr Waldie of Liverpool he experimented with Chloroform and introduced it into his practice in November 1847. Simpson, ‘Our existing system of Hospitalism and its effects’, Edinburgh Medical Journal, Mar 1869. Chloroform got Royal approval when Queen Victoria was given it at the birth of Leopold by John Snow.

James Young Simpson is accredited with discovering the anaesthetic properties of chloroform and pursued its use in obstetrics. Simpson, like his American counterparts, used to take part in Ether and chloroform frolics. Simpson lived in a time when most gentry were Church believers or supporters. It was difficult at that time to explain the need of pain relief during childbirth as the punishment for the original sin was seen as being compromised by man.

The pastor at the time would quote the book of Genesis which states: 

"to the woman he said, I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you. 199

It was Simpson who quietened these religious voices by reminding them that anaesthesia was inspired by God.

“So the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and closed up the place with flesh. “5

Simpson however failed to recognise the dangers associated with chloroform. James Young Simpson was born the son of a baker, was the first medical man to be knighted for services to medicine. He died in 1870 and to give you an idea of what high esteem he was held in his funeral route was lined by over 100,000 members of the public. 



Ken True History of Surgery and Anaesthesia