Painless Dreams

A drawing of the effects of liquid chloroform on Sir James Young Simpson and his friends.

The effects of liquid chloroform on Sir James Young Simpson and his friends. The shattered glass used by one of the experimenters lies on the floor. Wellcome Library, London.

Two of Cham’s vignettes address dentistry. In one, a man in a dentist’s chair dreams of being onstage, kneeling before a lovely ballerina who brings him a garland of flowers. In another, a man, confronted upon waking with a platter piled high with his own enormous choppers, regrets the “inconvenience” of encountering an overly enthusiastic tooth-puller. As more and more people experienced surgery and dentistry in an etheric haze, such cartoons may have helped to alleviate anxiety about this new, mind-altering substance and its effects.

The Sweet Blessing

The next major breakthrough in anesthesia came in 1847. In an elegant dining room in Edinburgh, Scottish surgeon and obstetrician Sir James Young Simpson ran a series of experiments to find inhaled painkillers that would be less smelly and flammable than ether and have fewer side effects. In an unusual twist on the standard gentleman’s routine of after-dinner drinks, Simpson and his assistants, George Keith and Matthew Duncan, gathered on Thursday evenings to sniff different chemical compounds and determine their effects, a logical, if dangerous method of drug testing in an age before clinical trials. Simpson did not choose his chemicals randomly; he focused on substances with “a more fragrant or agreeable odor” than ether and on volatile compounds that would evaporate at room temperature, thus becoming absorbed into the bloodstream through the lungs.

On the evening of November 4 it was chloroform’s turn. This organic chlorine-based compound had been synthesized in the 1830s by three men working in different countries: John Guthrie, a physician in upstate New York; French chemist Eugène Soubeiran; and famed German chemist Justus von Liebig. Though Guthrie’s “sweet whiskey” had enjoyed a brief vogue as a sipping tonic in his town of Sackets Harbor on Lake Ontario, the clear, heavy liquid seemed to have little practical use. Still, it fit Simpson’s guidelines. The three Edinburgh doctors poured out the chloroform, raised their glasses to their noses, and breathed in deeply. A sweet smell filled the air, and the younger physicians became lively and talkative.

“This is far better and stronger than ether,” Simpson thought. The next he knew, he was looking up at the ceiling, with noise and confusion all around. Duncan had collapsed under a chair, snoring loudly, and Keith lay on his back under the table, kicking it violently despite his unconsciousness. After gradually waking up and struggling back into their seats, the doctors were eager to experiment again—though more cautiously this time. Other family members watched these remarkable events. After inhaling the chloroform herself, Simpson’s niece-in-law called out, “I’m an angel! Oh, I’m an angel!” before folding her arms and falling asleep at the table. The group continued to sniff the chloroform until it all evaporated.

The experiment was a grand success, and Simpson and his colleagues lost no time in having large supplies of chloroform manufactured to use on their patients. Its use spread rapidly, as it was easy to obtain and administer and less harsh in its effects than ether. Simpson wrote extensively in defense of the substance, countering doctors and clergymen who argued that pain was necessary for the body and ordained by the Bible. He delivered one of his pithiest ripostes in an 1848 exchange with “an Irish lady.” She chastised him by saying “how unnatural it is for you doctors in Edinburgh to take away the pains of your patients when in labour.” He responded, “How unnatural . . . is it for you to have swam over from Ireland to Scotland against wind and tide in a steamboat.” For Simpson and his supporters relieving pain was as great an innovation as steam power. Both inventions seemed to prove 19th-century ideas about boundless technological progress and the perfectibility of humankind.

Nevertheless, objections to anesthesia—especially when used for women in labor—continued. Soon, however, chloroform received an unexpected supporter. Queen Victoria and her consort Prince Albert requested the compound for the birth of their eighth child, Prince Leopold, in 1853. John Snow administered the drug, using a few drops on a simple handkerchief rather than the inhalers and masks then on the market. The queen, who remained conscious throughout the procedure, recorded in her journal that the effect was “soothing, quieting, delightful beyond measure.” She received the drug again in 1857 for the birth of Princess Beatrice, her ninth and last child. When her oldest daughter Princess Victoria had her own first child in 1859, the queen rejoiced, “What a blessing she had chloroform.”