Little Bits of History

Nighty night

Posted in History by patriciahysell on November 4, 2012

Humphry Davy

November 4, 1847: Chloroform’s anesthetic properties are discovered. Chloroform is an organic compound with the formula CHCl3. It is a colorless, sweet-smelling, dense liquid and is considered somewhat hazardous. It comes from many different sources and was discovered by three different independent researchers. It was reported in 1831 by a Frenchman, an American, and a German with each scientist describing the same compound. Chloroform can be used as a solvent, it’s most common use today. It can also be used as a reagent in organic synthesis. But on this day, its anesthetic properties were first discovered. The vapor depresses the central nervous system and allows a doctor to perform otherwise painful procedures without distress to the patient.

Childbirth has always been a rather painful undertaking and to be able to relieve the discomfort of the process had long been a goal. Beginning in 1799, Sir Humphry Davy used nitrous oxide or laughing gas to lessen the pain of delivery. While it did help, it wasn’t quite the answer and so further investigations continued. Ether was originally dismissed due to the irritation it caused to the lungs. In 1847, James Young Simpson and his colleagues were attempting to find a substitute for ether as a general anesthetic. They breathed in some of the vapor and noticed their mood lightening, but then they suddenly collapsed and did not awaken until the next day. As soon as he woke up, Simpson knew he had found something useful.

The entire experiment was quite serendipitous. If they hadn’t inhaled enough, they wouldn’t have fallen asleep; if they had inhaled too much, they would have died. They next practiced with Miss Petrie, Simpson’s niece. She, too, fell asleep. The use of the drug soon spread and the pain of childbirth was lessened for many women of the time. Simpson was a sought after obstetrician for more than just his anesthetic discovery. He was often described as a free thinker and was willing to use that to enhance his medical practice. He was an early advocate of using midwives in a hospital setting. His home was also a meeting place for many of the social elites of the time, regardless of his medical proclivities. His interests also spanned other subjects, such as archaeology and hermaphroditism.

He was created a Baronet, of Strathavon in the County of Linlithgow, and of the City of Edinburgh, in 1866. He was 58 years old when he died at home at 52 Queen Street. A burial spot was offered at Westminster Abbey, but the family declined and he is instead buried in Warriston Cemetery, Edinburgh. Even so, a memorial bust was placed in the Abbey. On the day of his funeral, a Scottish holiday was declared and over 100,000 citizens lined the streets to see their great son on his way to his final resting place.

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

Alcohol is the anesthesia by which we endure the operation of life. – George Bernard Shaw

Married sex is like being awake during your own autopsy. It is root canal work without anesthetic. – Al Goldstein

The interesting thing is why we’re so desperate for this anesthetic against loneliness. – David Foster Wallace

Also on this day:

Symbolism – In 1899, Sigmund Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams in Germany.
Chartists – In 1839, the Newport Uprising ended in bloodshed.
Erie Canal – In 1825, the “Wedding of the Waters” took place.

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