02 March 2010
How significant was James Simpson’s role in solving the problem of surgery during the 19th century?
During the 19th century, there were many attempts to perform surgery without there being any risk towards the patient. This usually meant that the surgeons had to overcome problems of pain, infection and blood loss which were the three main ways in which patients died during surgery. Many individuals discovered methods to make surgery safer. One of these men was a Scottish doctor, by the name of James Simpson, who discovered the anesthetic properties of chloroform and successfully introduced it for general medical use.
Of course, there were other individuals who had used different varieties of anaesthetics before James Simpson. In 1799 Sir Humphrey Davy discovered laughing gas which reduced pain felt by patients. It was mostly used by dentists during teeth extractions, which caused excruciating pain. In 1846, J.R Lister used ‘ether’ as an anaesthetic so the patient would be unconscious during operation. However this was soon dismissed as it irritated the lungs and caused the patient to cough during the operation as well as the fact that ether is highly flammable. The fact that others had already tried to come up with suitable anaesthetics that could be used in surgery shows that James Simpson’s discovery had been built up with knowledge of previous attempts. It also proves that he wasn’t solely responsible for discovering ‘anaesthetics’.
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James Simpson was appointed the Professor of Midwifery at Edinburgh University due to his interest in obstetrics. In 1847, Simpson discovered the properties of chloroform during an experiment with friends in which he learnt that it could be used to put one to sleep. It was very much up to chance that Simpson survived the chloroform dosage he administered to himself. If he had inhaled too much, subsequently passing away from an overdose, chloroform would have been seen as a dangerous substance. However, if Simpson had inhaled slightly less it would not have put him to sleep. It was his willingness to explore the possibilities of the substance that established his career as a pioneer in the field of medicine. He began to use chloroform as an efficient and effective anaesthetic used to relieve labour pains during childbirth. This theory of relieving patients from pain spread across to many other surgeons who began using this method of anaesthesia. James Simpson was able to find an actual anaesthetic that was suitable in surgery, and he took the risk of trying the chloroform himself proving that he was dedicated to improving and solving the problems of surgery.
Yet, there was a lot of opposition to chloroform due to it being a new and untested gas. Surgeons did not know how much dosage to give their patients or whether there would be long-term side effects. There was also the fact that the use of chloroform caused an increase in deaths, since the patients were given a bigger dosage of chloroform that was necessary. This scared the many surgeons into not using it. There were also other who opposed chloroform because they believed that easing the pain of childbirth, it would make it unnatural and was an act against God. In addition to this, whilst the patient is unconscious surgeons became more confident and attempt more complex operations allowing infections deeper into the body and causing more blood loss. This also contributed to the rise in number of deaths since the introduction of chloroform. Yet, James Simpson soon got many people to realise that his theory was accurate and it was soon accepted. When Queen Victoria used chloroform when delivering her eighth child in 1857, the public along with many other surgeons began using it as an anaesthetic and this soon became a part of surgical practise.
However although James Simpson had already tried the anaesthetic on himself, it almost immediately became clear that there were very serious side effects associated with its use and it was known to cause death in a number of instances. From 1864, numerous studies were conducted in an attempt to determine whether chloroform affected the respiratory system or the circulatory system. The major health effects of chloroform surround acute inhalation which leads to depression which is why it was used for a long time as an anaesthetic. Chronic exposure to chloroform was associated with affects on the liver, kidney, and central nervous system. The evidence that chloroform was dangerous and fatal in numerous ways added to the opposition and causes us to believe whether James Simpson really was responsible for an important breakthrough in surgery.
In addition to this there were many other breakthroughs by many other people who would be considered to be more important since their discoveries caused essential progress in solving the problems of surgery. Louis Pasteur was extremely vital as he was responsible for the development of the Germ theory, along with Robert Koch. The French scientist was also accountable for the many vaccines such as Chicken cholera, Rabies and Anthrax. Of course, this was accentuated by the rivalry between Pasteur and Koch since, they were both ambitious and nationalistic and France had lost a bitter war to Germany in 1870-71. Joseph Lister was then able to use the germ theory to uncover another significant discovery: antiseptics. This included sterilisation of all equipment, including doctor’s hands, throughout the surgery. His reasoning behind this was to reduce the number of patients dying from infection passed on from bacteria on clothing and apparatus. This was vital because many people were dying from infection at the time and there were no advances to decrease the numbers until Lister’s antiseptics.
Another individual who was able to put the germ theory to good use was John Snow, who was responsible for discovering the cause of cholera, a big killer during the 1800s. He discovered that cholera was spread by drinking water that contained bacteria. Snow was one of the first physicians to study and calculate dosages for the use of ether and chloroform as surgical anaesthetics, allowing patients to undergo surgical and other procedures without the distress and pain they would otherwise experience. He personally administered chloroform to Queen Victoria when she gave birth to the last two of her nine children, leading to wider public acceptance of obstetric anaesthesia. The fact that there were many other individuals who were able to discover other vital things prevents James Simpson from solely being responsible for solving the problems of surgery. John Snow also proves that James Simpson was not the first to come up with the idea of ‘anaesthetics’, and therefore cannot really be responsible for the discovery although he played a major role in coming across chloroform.
In conclusion, I believe that James Simpson’s role was not very significant in the attempts to solve the problems of surgery. This is because he was able to use other people’s ideas, such as John Snow, to actually discover the anaesthetic. In addition to this, there were many other individuals and factors such as War and Technology that would have impacted surgery on a bigger scale than that of James Simpson’s discovery of chloroform as an anaesthetic. Although we can see his dedication in proving that chloroform was a suitable anaesthetic we can also see that there was a lot of scope for other individuals to find an anaesthetic that may have proved to be less fatal.