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James Simpson

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James Young Simpson

Sir James Young Simpson (Born::June 7, 1811Died::May 6, 1870) was a 19th century Scottish obstetrician who was the first to use chloroform in obstetrics (Obstetrics is the branch of medicine dealing in childbirth and care of the mother). He was also the first known person in Britain to use ether. He was a Bible-believing Christian who wrote an evangelical Gospel tract among his many medical writings.

Early Years

James Simpson was born on June 7, 1811 at Bathgate, Linlithgowshire, a small village near Edinburgh in Scotland. His father, David, was the village baker, who was struggling to make a living when Mary Jervay Simpson gave birth to their eighth child, and seventh son, James. That summer had seen an outbreak of virulent influenza and fever sweep the village, which had laid up many of the men and temporarily stifled their livelihood. The Simpson household was feeling the effects because baker Simpson had gone heavily into debt to try to supply bread to the many who could not afford it.

James's mother had a strong respect for the Bible and nurtured James on its teachings. She was descended from a family of Huguenots (French Calvinists) who had fled the region of Guyenne in south-west France and moved to Scotland. She raised James with strong Christian values which, combined with his sharp thinking skills, delightful personality, and many God-given talents, gave him the reputation as the boy most likely to succeed in the village.

The family's fortunes improved quickly when the epidemic had passed. When James began school, the family moved into a larger house on the other side of the street, paid off most of their debts, and expanded the bakery. James was fortunate to have a gifted schoolteacher named Mr. Henderson. Although Henderson was a little handicapped by having a wooden leg (the children called him "Timmerleg"), he was a keen naturalist who recognized the innate brilliance of young James. He gave much time to teaching James about nature, science, and how herbs can help heal various ailments.

When James was nine, his mother died. But she had already ordained a university career for him, and had set aside money for him to study at Edinburgh University.

Career in Medicine

In 1825, at the age of 14, James left Bathgate to study art at Edinburgh University. His young age, lack of friends, and lack of money inhibited him. He was also homesick. The brilliance he had shown in his early days at school was becoming suppressed. One of his classmates said of him, "He was a painstaking, but not especially brilliant, scholar." But his prayers for God to ease his burdens soon received answers. It was not long before he won a bursary of 10 pounds a year, which lifted his spirits.

Over the next two years Simpson decided that his career would be in medicine. Aged 16, he began his medical studies and soon proved to be an unusually intelligent student. In 1830, aged 19, he passed his final year examination with first-class honours. The following year, aged 20, the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh admitted him as a member.

After travelling to several countries in Europe, he returned to Scotland in 1835 and set up a medical practice in Heriot Row, Stockbridge — a suburb of Edinburgh. He married his second cousin, Jessie Grindlay, on Boxing Day in 1839, and a month later gained the chair of obstetrics at the University of Edinburgh, receiving the title Professor James Simpson.

Career Expands

Simpson's fame spread fast. People claimed he had "healing hands." He succeeded in helping patients whom other doctors had discarded. His warm personality and notable medical skill brought him more patients than he could handle. They came from Europe, India, and Australia. Such was his ability that in 1847 Queen Victoria appointed him as one of her physicians.

Simpson had long been trying to improve the horrifying conditions that plagued surgeons doing operations, and had prayed for a solution that would help both doctor and patient. When he heard that a surgeon in America had successfully used ether in performing an operation, he rejoiced, and quickly started using it in his own practice. Never satisfied, he worked tirelessly to find something better than ether.

He visited his chemist friend, Lord Playfair, and asked if the chemist could think of anything that might work better than ether. To his surprise, Playfair said his assistant had come up with a liquid that may work. Simpson wanted to try it on himself and his two assistants, but Playfair said it was too dangerous, and insisted they try it on two rabbits first. The rabbits died.

Discovery of Chloroform

Simpson and his two assistants continued their search for a better anaesthetic than ether. On the Thursday evening of November 4, 1847, they were testing new substances when they came up with one called chloroform. Immediately after testing it, Simpson knew it was remarkable, and that this was what he had been searching for. On November 15 they gave the first public demonstration of chloroform.

Despite Simpson's reputation, there was widespread resistance to chloroform at first. Doctors did not believe it could do what Simpson claimed, so he arranged supervised trials which put them in their place and evoked more acceptance from the medical community. But theologians also objected. Putting someone into a deep sleep was "unnatural," they said. "So are railway trains, steamboats, and carriages," retorted Simpson. To their objections that it was against Scripture, Simpson showed that his Bible knowledge was greater than theirs when he pointed out that Genesis 2:30 records that God put Adam into a deep sleep to create Eve.

Simpson's cause was furthered when a well-known Scottish theologian, Dr. Chalmers, lent his support to the use of chloroform, and Queen Victoria asked for it in the delivery of her child.

Simpson became president of the Royal College of Physicians in 1849, and in 1852 became president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Next year he was elected foreign member of the French Academy of Medicine. He received honours and awards: in 1856 the French Academy of Sciences presented him with their golden medal, and he also received a Monthyon prize. He received his knighthood in 1866 and became doctor of honour of law at the University of Oxford. In 1869 he received the freedom of the city of Edinburgh.

Simpson’s Legacy

Sir James Simpson introduced iron wire sutures and acupressure, a method of arresting haemorrhage, and developed the long obstetrics forceps that take his name. He is known for his writings on medical history, especially on leprosy in Scotland, and on fetal pathology and hermaphroditism.

Simpson was a tireless worker. He helped multitudes in his life, and had such a reassuring manner that he instilled confidence in all those he treated. Chloroform is regarded as his greatest discovery, and helped to lay the foundations for modern anaesthetics. But according to his own testimony, his greatest discovery was "That I have a Saviour!"

He wrote a Gospel tract that says near the end: "But again I looked and saw Jesus, my substitute, scourged in my stead and dying on the cross for me. I looked and cried and was forgiven. And it seems to be my duty to tell you of that Saviour, to see if you will not also look and live. 'He was wounded for our transgressions … and with His stripes we are healed' (Isaiah 53:5,6)."

James Simpson died shortly after sunset on May 6, 1870 in London, England. Such was his fame that more than 30,000 mourners turned out for his funeral. Queen Victoria approved his burial in Westminster Abbey, but his own wishes were respected when he was buried in Warriston, overlooking Edinburgh. His wife died a few weeks later, and five of their nine children died before him. A plaque dedicated to him on his statue at Westminster Abbey reads:

"To whose genius and benevolence
The world owes the blessings derived
From the use of chloroform for
The relief of suffering
Laus Deo"

Publications

  • Observations on the diseases of the placenta. 1835.
  • On peritonitis of the foetus in utero. 1838.
  • Inflammatory origins of some varieties of hernia and malformation in the foetus. 1839.
  • "Hermaphroditism." In, Robert Bentley Todd, et al: The cyclopaedia of anatomy and physiology. 5 volumes, London, 1836- 1859.
  • Antiquarian notices of leprosy and leper hospitals in Scotland and England. 1841. He published a second paper on this topic in 1842.
  • On intrauterine cutaneous disease, ichtyosis. 1843.
  • Contributions to the pathology and treatment of disease of the uterus. The London and Edinburgh Monthly Journal of Medical Science, Edinburgh, 1843, 3: 547-556, 701-715, 1009-1027; The London and Edinburgh Monthly Journal of Medical Science, Edinburgh, 1844, 4: 208-217.
  • On the alleged infecundity of females born co-twins with males; with some notes on the average proportion of marriages without issue in general society. 1844.
  • Dilatation and incision of the cervix uteri in cases of obstructive dysmenorrhoea. 1844.
  • "The Sex of the Child as a Cause of Difficulty and Death in Parturition". The Lancet, London, January 11, 1845, 1: 37.
  • "Discovery of a new anaesthetic agent, more efficient than sulphuric ether." London Medical Gazette, 1847, n.s. 5: 906. Preliminary report. London Medical Gazette, 1847, n.s. 5: 934-937. The Lancet, London, November 21, 1847, 2: 549-550..
  • "On the Air Tractor, as a Substitute for the Midwifery Forceps". The Lancet, London, March 3, 1849, 1: 236.
  • On the nature of the membrane occasionally expelled in dysmenorrhoea. 1847.
  • On the attitude and positions of the foetus in utero. 1848.
  • Medicated pessaries. 1848.
  • Retroversion of the unimpregnated uterus. 1848.
  • Anaesthesia; or, The Employment of Chloroform and Ether in Surgery, Midwifery, etc. Philadelphia, 1849. This work, which was never published in book form in Britain, is a collection of his writings and speeches on his experiences in the use of chloroform and ether.
  • "Local Anæsthesia; Notes on its artificial production by chloroform, etc., in the lower animals and in man". The Lancet, London, July 8, 1848, 2: 39-42.
  • On the discovery and construction of the air-tractor. 1849.
  • Intrauterine small-pox. 1849.
  • On the detection and treatment of intrauterine polypi. 1850.
  • Spurious pregnancy. 1850.
  • On turning as a substitute for craniotomy and the long forceps.
  • On the analogy between puerperal and surgical fever. 1850.
  • Was the Roman army provided with medical officers? 1851.
  • Homoeopathy, its tenets and tendencies, theoretical, theological, and therapeutical. Third edition, 1853.
  • Therapeutic action of the salts of cerium. 1854.
  • The determining cause of parturition. 1854.
  • Artificial anaesthesia as a means of facilitating uterine diagnosis. 1855.
  • Perinaeal fistula left by the transit of the foetus through the perinaeum. 1855.
  • The obstetric memoirs and contributions edited by Priestley and Storer. A collection of various treatises. 2 volumes; Edinburgh, 1855-1856.
  • Observations on carbonic acid gas as a local anaesthetic in uterine diseases etc. 1856.
  • Proposed removal of tumours by injecting irritants into their substance. 1857.
  • Notice of albumen in a case of puerperal mania. 1857.
  • Notice of chloride of amyl as an anaesthetic. 1857.
  • Iron-thread sutures and splints in vesico-vaginal fistulae. 1858.
  • Treatment of hydrocele by iron-wire seton. 1858.
  • "On acupressure in amputations". Medical Times and Gazette, London, 1860.
  • Notice on the appearance of syphilis in Scotland and the last years of the 15th century. 1860.
  • Letter disclaiming the originality of coccygectomy. 1861.
  • "Clinical lectures on acupressure". Medical Times and Gazette, London, 1864.
  • Tangle-tents. 1864.
  • Acupressure, a new method of arresting surgical haemorrhage and of accelerating the healing of wounds. 1864. A compilation of the two above works.
  • On the existende in the human subject of organs unprovided with nerves, lymphatics, or capillaries. 1868.
  • "Some propositions on hospitalism". The Lancet, 1869.
  • "Hospitalism; its influence upon limb amputation in the London hospitals". British Medical Journal, London, 1869.
  • "Our existing system of hospitalism and its effects". Edinburgh Medical Journal, 1869.
  • "Hospitalism: its effects on the results of surgical operations". Edinburgh Medical Journal, 1869.
  • "On the anaesthetic and sedative properties of bichloride of carbon or chlorocarbon". Medical Times and Gazette, London, 1875.

Simpson’s series of smaller lectures during the years 1859-1861 and published in the Medical Times and Gazette, London, were reprinted in America in one volume as Clinical lectures on diseases of women. Philadelphia, 1863; New York, 1872.

References