Scottish physician and pioneer of anaesthesia in childbirth.
On January 19, 1847, James Young Simpson shocked the medical establishment by administering ether to a woman in labour. It was only three months since William T.G. Morton's pioneering demonstration of the anaesthetic in Boston, Massachusetts, while removing a patient's tooth. Simpson's treatment was loudly condemned by medical and religious leaders throughout the British Empire, and enormously popular with women everywhere.
Simpson had been born in Bathgate, near Edinburgh, on June 7, 1811. He was the eighth child of a baker, and the family strained its resources to send him to Edinburgh University at age fourteen. Although he was an arts student, he became fascinated by anatomy and medicine after attending a lecture by Robert Knox (ironically, the man who bought corpses off of Burke and Hare). In 1828, he enrolled in the medical school, and finished two years later.
By 1835, Simpson was elected to the Royal Medical Society, and in 1840 he was appointed to the position of "Professor of Medicine and Midwifery and of the Diseases of Women and Children" at Edinburgh University. He was twenty nine at the time, relatively unknown, but keen to prove himself to the world.
Over the next few years, he suceeded in his ambition to become an authority in his field. In addition to teaching, he designed obstetrical forceps, revised surgical procedures, and improved medical education and care. By the time that news of Morton's demonstration of ether reached Edinburgh, Simpson was at the pinnacle of his career.
On the same day in 1847 that Simpson anaesthetised the woman in labour, Queen Victoria appointed him as one of her physicians. It was a sign of her support for medical innovation at a time when Simpson faced furious controversy. Both religious and medical authorities objected to the use of painkillers during labour. Theologians cited Genesis 3:14 ("in sorrow shalt thou bring forth children"). Doctors called women who wanted pain relief "cowards" and speculated without evidence on serious medical consequences.
Simpson tackled the medical concerns head-on, emphasising that pain in labour was unneccesary, and that anaesthetic would reduce complications in birth. He collected statistics to back up his claims. When objectors used religious grounds, he cited other useful inventions that had been frowned upon at first, such as spectacles. However, the decisive moment in his campaign to legitimise the practice came when Queen Victoria asked him to anaesthetise her for the birth of her fifth child. Many in the British Empire reasoned that if the Queen had used pain relief, then it was clearly a good idea.
By the end of his life, Simpson had pioneered the use of chloroform rather than ether for anaesthesia (after experimenting on himself and his dinner guests), and designed an early ventouse device. He was made a baronet by the Queen for his services to medicine, was eventually elected President of the Edinburgh Royal College of Physicians, as a Foreign Associate of the Academy of Medicine of Paris, and given the Swedish Royal Order of St. Olaf.
Sir James Young Simpson died in 1870. Over 30,000 people lined the streets of Edinburgh to watch his funeral procession, and his statue still stands on Princes Street. A plaque in his honour was erected in Westminster Abbey, reading
To whose genius and benevolence
The world owes the blessings derived
From the use of chloroform for
The relief of suffering
In addition, his name lives on in Edinburgh's maternity unit, the Simpson Maternity Pavillion. Although general anaesthesia is no longer used in childbirth, Simpson is still honoured for the priority he placed on the welfare of mothers, and their right to choose what happens during labour.