James Young Simpson, 1811 - 1870

James Simpson

1811 - 1870
by David F. Coppedge

This is a true story of how the Bible helped advance science and alleviate needless suffering. It’s the story of the man who instigated the use of chloroform in surgery – the surgeon and obstetrician, Dr. James Simpson.

James Young Simpson was the 8th child, and 7th son, of a poor baker in Scotland. His mother died when he was 9; the fifth son also died young. John Hudson Tiner says in Those Who Dare, pp. 170-171 that the family could only afford to send one child to school. Because James showed the most promise, he was selected. He entered the University of Edinburgh at age 14 and graduated with a medical degree at age 21.

It’s hard to imagine today that surgery was done without benefit of painkillers or anesthesia until the mid-19th century. There was alcohol, of course, and some opiates that could make people dopey or sleepy that were known since antiquity. Recall that in Romeo and Juliet the protagonists feigned death, probably with the use of a soporific sponge with which Shakespeare may have been familiar. Before actual anesthesia was born in the mid-1840s, surgery was a horrendous affair. Operating rooms were located far from hospitals where people could not hear the screams. Patients were strapped down, given liquor or opiates, and cut up and sewn up as quickly as possible. Imagine being a surgeon and having to put people in agony day after day. No wonder surgeons had a reputation for being heartless, uncaring individuals. All that suddenly and dramatically changed in 1846-1847.

Nitrous oxide (laughing gas), discovered by Joseph Priestly, and introduced by Humphrey Davy in 1799, had been found to be effective in dental surgery around 1845. Ether was introduced in a dramatic surgical demonstration by the American physician William Morton on October 16, 1846; co-priority was claimed by Harvard chemist Charles Jackson a week later. But early attempts at the use of ether were met with great risk; ether was noxious and flammable, and with gas lamps around, explosions could occur.

James Simpson experimented with other substances using a risky trial and error procedure: he and two friends would sniff various chemicals to see if they had any anesthetic effects. Since we prefer not to consider Wikipedia a reliable source, the following quote can be considered entertaining if not authoritative:

Dr Simpson and two of his friends, Drs Keith and Duncan used to sit every evening in Dr Simpson’s dining room to try new chemicals to see if they had any anaesthetic effect. On 4th November, 1847 they decided to try a ponderous material named chloroform that they had previously ignored. On inhaling the chemical they found that a general mood of cheer and humour had set in. But suddenly all of them collapsed only to regain consciousness the next morning. Simpson knew, as soon as he woke up, that he had found something that could be used as an anaesthetic. They soon had Miss Petrie, Simpson’s niece, try it. She fell asleep soon after inhaling it while singing the words, “I am an angel!” 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.

So one way or another, Simpson had found that chloroform (CHCl3), which had been reported by a French chemist in 1831, was effective and reliable. He experimented with it as a general anesthetic for childbirth, and published a paper on it in 1847: Account of a New Anaesthetic Agent.  Its use thereafter expanded rapidly in Europe – especially after Queen Victoria bore Prince Leopold with its use in 1853. Simpson’s fame spread; he was knighted, and his coat of arms read, “Victo dolore” – Pain conquered!

Yet some doctors did not jump at the opportunity to use anesthesia, Tiner said. Some argued that pain served a medical purpose. A few doctors, for some strange reason, voiced religious objections to the use of anesthetics. They argued it was against nature or against the will of God. Here’s where Simpson found an argument from Scripture. He turned to Genesis 2, where God put Adam to sleep while performing surgery on him to create Eve from his side. If God could use a kind of anesthesia before the fall of man, why could not we use such a technique today? Tiner explains, “Simpson believed the principle that God did not rejoice in needless pain still applied.”

This was not an isolated application of Scripture for Simpson. Tiner goes on to explain that Simpson was an avid Christian, a Bible scholar, and soulwinner. He even wrote a tract explaining the gospel of Jesus Christ to non-Christians.

Chloroform was a major advance in surgery. Patients think nothing of going into an Adamic sleep while being cut open for operations that before would have caused screams of pain, only to awaken sewn up and unaware of the trauma. Anesthesia has undergone many advances since 1847. Chloroform can be toxic in high doses and must be used with care, but it is still used in primitive situations. “It is inexpensive and easy to transport and store,” Tiner says; “Hot temperatures do not affect it, and an open flame will not cause it to explode” (Tiner, Ibid., p. 171).

In Men of Science, Men of God (1988, p. 52), Henry M. Morris wrote that Simpson could have boasted about his discovery of chloroform, but exclaimed that his greatest discovery was, “That I have a Saviour!” Morris quoted the end of that gospel tract Simpson wrote.  It said:

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)

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