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People > Scottish Innovators > Sir James Young Simpson

Notable Scots: Innovation & Discovery

Sir James Young Simpson (1811-1870):

Doctor & Researcher

"All pain is per se and especially in excess, destructive and ultimately fatal in its nature and effects."
~ James Young Simpson
James Simpson
James Simpson

Born in Bathgate, West Lothian, this brilliant young man completed his medical examinations at the University of Edinburgh at age eighteen, but had to wait two years to practice medicine until he came of legal age. At twenty-eight, he was appointed to the Chair of Midwifery at the University of Edinburgh, where he became a pioneer in obstetrics and gynecology.

Simpson, unlike most medical men of his day, was quite concerned about the pain his patients suffered during childbirth, and searched for ways to alleviate it. While visiting London, he met with the surgeon Robert Lister, who praised the use of ether as an anesthetic in a recent operation. Ether, however, was not conducive for obstetrics, so Simpson continued to experiment with different chemical compounds.

In 1847, the same year he was appointed physician to Queen Victoria while she was visiting in Scotland, Simpson discovered the anesthetic properties of chloroform. He learned that the colourless liquid with a sweet taste and subtle aroma quickly passed into the bloodstream when inhaled, and realized its potential after he tested it on himself at his home in the presence of two colleagues. Simpson drifted into a cheerful state before passing out, and he woke up soon afterwards with no ill effects.

Simpson first utilized chloroform as an anesthetic to ease the pain of childbirth. This practice was initially opposed by the Kirk on the grounds that it tampered with the Divine Order - church officials quoted Genesis to assert that the pain of childbirth was the Lord's punishment on womankind for Eve eating the apple from the tree of knowledge. Simpson, however, retaliated by quoting God's use of anesthesia during a surgical procedure in Genesis 2:21: "So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then He took one of his ribs and closed up the flesh at that place." The controversy surrounding this practice quickly disappeared after Queen Victoria used chloroform to help her deliver Prince Leopold in 1853.

Simpson was honoured with a first baronet in 1866, the first to be awarded to a doctor practicing in Scotland; his coat of arms is inscribed with the words Victo Dolore (pain conquered). He died four years later at the age of 59 in his home on Queen Street in Edinburgh, and the day of his funeral was declared a holiday in Scotland. The inscription on Simpson's memorial bust at Westminster Abbey affirms "that it is to his genius and benevolence the world owes the blessings derived from the use of chloroform for the relief of suffering".

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