Morris McCrae’s intriguing tale of James Simpson, the individual famous for introducing anesthesia to the world of obstetrics, will certainly keep you entertained. It is the most recent biography of this giant. It not only describes his innovative work in anesthesia but also casts it in a wider social context.
Simpson was a driven yet quirky individual whose life had both highs and lows. McCrae begins the story with scenes of Simpson’s humble beginnings in rural Scotland in the 19th century. He describes a series of coincidences by which the exceedingly gifted young man made it to the prestigious University of Edinburgh and received a medical degree at the age of 21—the youngest age permitted by the school. Four years after receiving his degree, Simpson worked as an assistant to John Thompson, head of Pathology at Edinburgh, giving him the opportunity to travel around Europe and a new sense of self-confidence.
Prestigious positions in the scientific community, as well as at Edinburgh, were tied closely to political regimes to which Simpson had no ties. Nevertheless, at 29, Simpson won the professorship of Midwifery at Edinburgh afteran uphill battle against many worthy competitors. Simpson used grassroots methods to garner political support of the public to win over the voting board at Edinburgh.
After becoming a full staff member at Edinburgh, Simpson’s relationship with colleagues suffered while his relationship with patients and the community flourished. In short time, Simpson’s practice went from small and meager to large and sophisticated serving the upper echelons of society, including Queen Victoria. McCrae paints Simpson as a practitioner who always went the extra step to care for his patients’ best interests physically and emotionally. Simpson’s love for his patients is what fueled his search for an additional anesthetic agent to replace the available, but difficult to administer, ether.
On November 4, 1847, Simpson found chloroform, which proved to be more potent, faster acting, and easier to administer than ether. Excited about his findings, Simpson conducted 50 trials, spoke at a lecture, and published a pamphlet, Account of a New Anaesthetic Agent as a Substitute for Sulphuric Ether in Surgery and Midwifery, to garner public support all within the first week of discovery. Simpson was driven to use it to relieve pain during childbirth and other gynecological surgeries.
The book discusses the interesting mid-19th century European opposition to the use of anesthesia. Religious opposition made claim that the Bible intended women to suffer through childbirth and it would be a sin to do otherwise. Some medical colleagues claimed that the pain of surgery assisted patients in their healing process, and so, pain was a necessary evil. Additionally, some felt that chloroform should be tested further before general use was permitted. As a testament to Simpson’s compassion for his patients’ traumatic, painful operations, and his gutsy, impulsive personality, he did eventually move forward with the use of chloroform for childbirth and made his mark on the history of medicine doing so.
McCrae’s research presented in this biography includes detailed information about events of the mid-1800s that directly, or indirectly, involved Simpson, His discussion of Richard Hutton’s and Charles Darwin’s Theories of Uniformitarianism and Evolution offered information about Simpson’s contemporaries. It was interesting to learn that Simpson dabbled in other areas of medicine at times, including a publication dedicated to cholera.
The book was an absolute page-turner and one that I would recommend to others interested in medicine, as well the history of advances in medicine. McCrae captured Simpson as a driven man who had the utmost compassion for his patients.
Davita Mabourakh, BS
College of Arts and Sciences
University of Miami
Michael Lewis, MD
Department of Anesthesiology
University of Miami Miller School of Medicine