The Moderniser

James Young Simpson  1811-1870











The question is? who discovered Chloroform, here is the question?  Chloroform can also be called trichloromethane and is prepared through the chlorination of methane gas.

James Young Simpson was born at Bathgate, Linlithgowshire, in 1811. The Simpson family had lived there for many years, steady labouring farmer folk. James’s father, David Simpson, happened to be the village baker.
At the age of fourteen he entered the University of Edinburgh as a student of the arts. Two years later he began his medical studies. At the age of 21 he took his degree of Doctor of Medicine. Dr John Thomson, who then occupied the chair of pathology in the university, was impressed with Simpson's thesis, "On Death from Inflammation," and he offered him his assistantship. The offer was accepted, and during the session 1837-1838 he acted as interim lecturer on pathology during the illness of the professor. The following winter he delivered his first course of lectures on obstetric medicine in the extra-academical school. In February 1840 he was elected to the professorship of medicine and midwifery in the university.196 It is said that the name Young in his name represents his achievement as a very "young" Professor as he was not baptised with this middle name. 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’197


Simpson started to use ether on January 19, 1847 in Edinburgh, Scotland.
He disliked its strong smell of ether and was determined to find a better alternative.

So, who discovered chloroform.

Chloroform was first prepared in 1831 by the American chemist Dr. Samuel Guthrie, who combined whiskey with chlorinated lime in an attempt to produce a cheap pesticide.
Simpson with two of his assistants continued their search for a better anaesthetic than ether. On the advice of Dr Waldie of Liverpool, he experimented with Chloroform. On the Thursday evening of November 4, 1847, they tested Chloroform.
Immediately after testing it, Simpson knew it was remarkable, and that this was what he had been searching for. On November 15 they gave the first public demonstration of chloroform and introduced it into his practice in November 1847.


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.”198


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. “4


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 like Lister was a strong advocate from an early period of preventing hospital infection and insisted his juniors washed their hands in chlorine prior to contact with a patient.

He and his wife suffered personal tragedy losing two young daughters to which it has been said that they never ever recovered.

Most of his practise was private up until his death.
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. There is even a monument in Edinburgh for this incredibly talented physician.


"All pain is per'se and especially in excess, destructive and ultimately fatal in its nature and effects.197

Click on Simpsons Image below to watch an old movie of his discovery.




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The History of Surgery and Anaesthesia was created as a free resource to educate Students or indeed anyone wishing to understand the beginings of surgery and Anaesthesia.

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