This Day in History – November 4th, 1847

Before we proceed any further . . . a quick, but important announcement . . . this post is the 700th article to appear on The Pandora Society dot com . . . as a celebration of this centennial moment we invite you to have an extra sugar cube, or maybe even two, in your morning cup of tea and raise a slice of toast . . . huzzah!

Now, enough silliness and back to history . . . does this smell like chloroform to you?


Sir James Young Simpson

Sir Humphry Davy used the first anesthetic in 1799, nitrous oxide (laughing gas). Robert Liston‘s ether was initially dismissed as an anesthetic because it irritated the lungs of the patients. It was on November 4th, 1847, however, that Sir James Young Simpson, a British physician, discovered the anesthetic properties of chloroform.

During an experiment with friends in which he learned that it could be used to put one to sleep. Dr Simpson and two of his friends, Drs Keith and Duncan used to sit every evening in Dr Simpson’s dining room to try new chemicals to see if they had any anesthetic effect. That evening they decided to try a ponderous material named chloroform that they had previously ignored. On inhaling the chemical they found that a general mood of cheer and humor had set in. But suddenly all of them collapsed only to regain consciousness the next morning. Simpson knew, as soon as he woke up, that he had found something that could be used as an anesthetic.

Sir James Young Simpson

They soon had Miss Petrie, Simpson’s niece, try it. She fell asleep soon after inhaling it while singing the words, “I am an angel!”. There is a prevalent myth that the mother of the first child delivered under chloroform christened her child “Anaesthesia”; the story is retailed in Simpson’s biography as written by his daughter Eve. However, the son of the first baby delivered by chloroform explained that Simpson’s parturient had been one Jane Carstairs, and her child was baptised Wilhelmina. “Anaesthesia” was a nickname Simpson had given the baby.

It was very much by chance that Simpson survived the chloroform dosage he administered to himself. If he had inhaled too much and died, chloroform would have been seen as a dangerous substance, which in fact it is. Conversely, if Simpson had inhaled slightly less it would not have put him to sleep. It was his willingness to explore the possibilities of the substance that set him on the road to a career as a pioneer in the field of medicine.

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