5th November 1847

Doctors awake after accidentally discovering anaesthesia

Sir James Young Simpson, born in Bathgate in 1811, revolutionised medical care when he discovered the anaesthetising properties of chloroform, quite unexpectedly, in 1847.

At the time, the most commonly deployed option for reducing the pain one might find when undergoing an operation was laughing gas, but this was far from ideal, as it could be harmful to the lungs. Ether had recently been proposed as an alternative, but it was noxious.

Unintended consequences

So, Simpson and his colleagues were experimenting with various unproven chemicals to see which of them might be a suitable alternative. On the evening of 4 November 1847, they uncapped some chloroform and took a lungful. The next thing they knew, they were waking up the following morning. It had worked and – more to the point – it was safe.

Ether had only been discovered as a suitable alternative to laughing gas less than twelve months before Simpson’s experiments with chloroform bore fruit. And, wrote the Caledonian Mercury of 15 November 1847, “its advantages over ether are so varied and palpable that the latter may be considered as already superseded.”

Quickly deployed

Its benefits were immediately understood, and it quickly went into general use. A letter from a dentist, printed in the Morning Post of 20 November 1847, explained that “the great superiority of this new agent over ether is, that less is required to produce insensibility and is more rapid in its effects. Unconsciousness does not continue so long after the operation; the flavour is more agreeable to the patient and leaves no unpleasant odour after inhalation; neither is that debility felt so often experienced after inhaling ether.”

Simpson’s death

Simpson was well respected in his field and, following his death in Edinburgh in 1870, it was suggested he might be buried in Westminster Abbey. This was declined by his family. On 7 May 1870, the Dundee Courier reported his passing the previous evening, aged 58, after an illness. This had appeared to be improving until “a change for the worse took place and Sir James continued in a weak and sinking condition up to the time of his death.”

His funeral was so well attended that “thousands and tens of thousands of us turned out to follow his coffin to the grave”, noted the North British Agriculturalist of 18 May 1870, which explained that a funeral car, which was a novelty at the time, had been especially designed and constructed for the occasion. Simpson was buried at Edinburgh’s Warriston Cemetery.



Other events that occured in November

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