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Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Sir James Simpson, the man behind anaesthetic chloroform

We have seen it in many cinemas ~ group of people [villain gang] would suddenly surround the good looking heroine, whip out a kerchief soaked with concentrated chemical [chloroform !] and force it on the young lass – the girl would faint immediately – and would be taken in the waiting vehicle !

The word ‘anaesthesia’ means ‘loss of sensation’.  It stops one from feeling pain and other sensations. Drugs that cause anaesthesia work by blocking the signals that pass along the  nerves to one’s brain. When the drugs wear off,  the person affected would start to feel normal sensations again, including pain.  A local anaesthetic numbs a small part of your body. It is used when the nerves can easily be reached by drops, sprays, ointments or injections.  One stays conscious but may not experience the pain.   Regional anaesthesia is when local anaesthetic drugs are injected near to the bundles of nerves which carry signals from that area of the body to the brain.  General anaesthesia is a state of controlled unconsciousness during which one feels nothing. Some operations can only be done with a general anaesthetic.

An Anaesthetic,  is a drug that causes anesthesia—reversible loss of sensation. Anesthetics contrast with analgesics (painkillers), which relieve pain without eliminating sensation.  Anaesthetists are Specialists in this field who have completed a full medical training.  Chloroform is an organic compound with formula CHCl3.  The colourless, sweet-smelling, dense liquid is a trihalomethane, and is considered hazardous.  Chloroform was once a widely used anesthetic.

On 4th Nov  1847,  a Scottish obstetrician discovered the anesthetic qualities of chloroform.  The use of chloroform during surgery expanded rapidly thereafter in Europe.  It is reported that in the 1850s, chloroform was used during the birth of Queen Victoria's last two children.  Its  tendency to cause fatal cardiac arrhythmia  is now termed "sudden sniffer's death". Some people used chloroform as a recreational drug or to attempt suicide too.  Chloroform has been reputed to be used by criminals to knock out, daze or even murder their victims.

Sir James Young Simpson, 1st Baronet [1811 – 1870] was a Scottish obstetrician and an important figure in the history of medicine. Simpson discovered the anaesthetic properties of chloroform and successfully introduced it for general medical use. Simpson completed his final examination at the age of 18 but, as he was so young, had to wait two years before he got his license to practice medicine. In 1838 he designed the Air Tractor, the earliest known vacuum extractor to assist childbirth but the method did not become popular until the invention of the ventouse over a century later.  He improved the design of obstetric forceps that to this day are known in obstetric circles as "Simpson's Forceps".  His most noted contribution was the introduction of anaesthesia to childbirth.

Simpson's intellectual interests ranged from archaeology to an almost taboo subject at the time: hermaphroditism. He was a very early advocate of the use of midwives in the hospital environment. Many prominent women also consulted him for their gynaecological problems.  Simpson was created a Baronet of Strathavon in the County of Linlithgow, and of the City of Edinburgh, in 1866.  He died at his home in Edinburgh in May 1870 at the age of fifty-eight.  It is reported that on the day of Simpson's funeral, a Scottish holiday was declared, including the banks and stock markets, with over 100,000 citizens lining the funeral cortege on its way to the cemetery, while over 1,700 colleagues and business leaders took part in the procession itself.

Use of chloroform as an incapacitating agent has become widely recognized, bordering on clichéd, due to the popularity of crime fiction authors  and movie directors having criminals use chloroform-soaked rags to render victims unconscious. It takes at least five minutes of inhaling an item soaked in chloroform to render a person unconscious ! and fainting is not instantaneous !!!

With regards – S. Sampathkumar

4th Nov. 2014.

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