A Real Knockout

It’s a day that every woman should celebrate: on 4 November, 1847 a distinguished Scottish physician named James Young Simpson discovered the anaesthetic properties of chloroform. Before long, Simpson—chair of Obstetrics and Midwifery at the University of Edinburgh and personal physician to Queen Victoria—would begin using his discovery to ease the pain of childbirth.

Simpson was born in Bathgate, West Lothian, the youngest of seven children. He received a basic education at the local school, but it soon became obvious that his talents wouldn’t be very well served there. His father and older brothers pooled their cash and were able to pay for him to attend the University of Edinburgh when he was only 14 years old. He completed his studies at the age of 18, but since nobody in their right mind wants a teenage doctor attending them, no matter how talented, he had to wait two years before he received his license to practice medicine. By the age of 20, he was appointed chair of his department and had applied himself to improving the design of forceps and fighting against the contagion of puerperal sepsis, one of the leading killers of women in childbirth. He was also an early advocate of using female midwives in hospitals. In his spare time, he studied archaeology and hermaphorditism. Everybody needs a hobby.

Simpson and a couple of his buddies would get together regularly and try out new chemicals to see if they had an anaesthetic effect, because that sort of thing has never gone very badly wrong. One night in 1847, they realised that chloroform put one in a rather perky mood and then knocked them out cold. Their next step was to try it out on Simpson’s niece, because it’s funny to see your relatives get high. The experiment was a success and Queen Victoria was only too happy to try the stuff out herself in childbirth, allowing its use to enter the mainstream.

As a reward, Simpson was made a Baronet, and after he died in 1870 he was offered a burial place in Westminster Abbey. His family declined, preferring to bury him closer to home in Warriston Cemetery. A memorial bust was placed in Westminster instead. On the day of his funeral, a holiday was declared in Scotland and over 100,000 citizens lined the funeral procession. Today, his house at 52 Queen Street is the premises of a charity that provides counselling for adults and children affected by alcohol and drug use. The main residential street in The Quartermile development was named Simpson Loan in his honour.

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