No WIBs but JY Simpson

I have a friend whose father wrote the forward for a biography of James Young Simpson. A fitting person to write such a forward to such a book, Ian Donald pioneered the introduction of ultra sound to midwifery in Glasgow. He was also a Professor of Midwifery, though at Glasgow. Simpson (1811 to 1870) was in Edinburgh in the century before. When I think about the remarkable rapidity with which new technology is expanded and overtaken by newer technology, I am full of awe. But that’s what happens!

Book Cover for Simpson’s biography

JY Simpson’s biography was written and published in 1972 by Myrtle Simpson who had married into the Simpson family. She was an intrepid person in her own right and has written some amazing travel books.

The biography is a fascinating story of the man who first introduced chloroform as an anaesthetic initially in both dentistry and midwifery. The first article written by Simpson seems to have been to the Lancet in 1847.

A major driving thrust was to try and reduce the pain experienced by anyone who had to undergo surgery of any sort. Sulphuric ether had been used but delivery of the ether was cumbersome, dangerous and complicated. Simpson had been actively looking for some other gas with easier properties to replace ether that had come into use in 1846.

A young James Young Simpson

He certainly was no slouch. Through 1847 he experimented (tested chloroform on himself, his colleagues and his dinner guests!!) and was satisfied that chloroform was the agent of anaesthesia he had been looking for. He produced a prodigious number of articles for the Monthly Journal of Medical Science and the London Medical Gazette during that year. The problem was always how much to give a patient.

There are some hilarious stories of eminent physicians in non-eminent straits after inhaling chloroform at Simpson’s home (and professional rooms) at 52 Queen Street, Edinburgh.

Simpson lived and practised at 52 Queen St

Simpson first used chloroform in obstetrics on 8 November 1847. He delivered Jane Carstairs of a baby girl 25 minutes after administering chloroform to Jane. When she woke up she mentioned having a restful sleep. She was unaware that she had given birth.

I often think that in the earlier times, fields of potential endeavour being wider open than now, the people who filled these fields with their inventions, their insights, their experiments and their conclusions on which later generations built, had very fulfilling and satisfying, if controversial lives.

Notwithstanding the lack of public health measures, no germ theory and a raft of other ‘didn’t haves’, people like JY Simpson forged through the accepted wisdom and was one of those who instead of asking why, asked why not. He was to all intents and purposes a practical man with an enormous energy. He wasn’t fearful of trying new things and so became well known early on in his career as a controversialist.

He lived in a time when cleanliness in hospitals came into being thus saving lives, when infant mortality dropped from 60% to 30% in the crowded cities, when silk was used for suturing rather than unclean animal tendon; it saw the end of scurvy and the idea that prevention was better than cure. Public Health initiatives started delivering clean water, air wasn’t as polluted and refuse collection and waste drainage in cities was becoming a proper urban practice.

He became Professor of Midwifery at Edinburgh University in 1840, Physician to Queen Victoria in 1847, President of the Royal College of Physicians in 1850 and Baronet in 1866.

He was an ebullient and very compassionate man given to innovation and testing and finding practical solutions to problems he came across in his everyday medical practice. He certainly had many patients and colleagues who revered him and, of course, the few colleagues whose noses were put out of joint as Simpson’s reputation grew. He locked horns with the religious on whether man should interfere with ‘god’s’ handiwork.

He had no time for religious dogma. He became a Christian but eschewed bible teachings.

“The Bible, however, as it always seems to me teaches us no kind of knowledge which the intellect of man is unable to discover. It is a revelation of religious truths, not a revelation of scientific truth; and when the Westminster divines insisted their opinion of the duration and age of the world, they took up a position in science which science has since entirely contradicted.” Simpson, p.248

My little post here is just a snippet. It serves to indicate my high regard for medical science and its pioneers. We women owe doctors like JY Simpson a lot.

The biography itself is absolutely un-put-downable. The images Myrtle creates are so evocative. The descriptions of Simpson’s Edinburgh in the 1800s made old Edinburgh come alive in my mind’s eye and I have a much better understanding of how the ‘auld toun’ was built and what a disease infested place it became during the Highland Clearances when so many, thrown off their lands, came to the towns.

What an interesting, albeit dangerous, time to have lived in over-crowded towns and cities. I don’t envy that age but am grateful for the innovative people who did live at that time. We have a lot to thank them for. They pioneered so much in the way of health and the management of a burgeoning urbanisation.

Simpson – Princes St., near St. John’s Church
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2 comments on “No WIBs but JY Simpson

  1. Michelle B says:

    Humans can and have done so much good.

    • Veronique says:

      If only there were more who did! Isn’t it amazing that we are all so much the same and yet the heights we are capable of achieving are attempted by so few of us?

      And so much of the time nowadays, celebrity status seems to suffice instead of real status. I guess that is partly an offshoot of increased communications technology as much as anything.

      There are still amazing things happening though. I want to write about a countryman of mine, one Barry Marshall who co-discovered Helicobacter pylori and is on the move again in the field of vaccinations.

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