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Sir James Young Simpson


JAMES YOUNG SIMPSON, “the beloved physician,” was born at Bathgate, in Linlithgowshire, on June 7th, 1811. His father, the son of a small fanner, was a baker, and though a worthy man, was unable to conduct the business so as to make it support his family. At the time of James’ birth the drawings in the shop were so small that he could no longer conceal the state of affairs from his wife, who hitherto had kept strictly within the sphere of domestic duty. She was a sagacious, energetic woman, and at once devised means by which he was able to get rid of his most pressing difficulties. Under her prudent management the business prospered, and her husband was not again haunted by fear of ruin. James was her youngest child, and in the weary weeks of sickness preceding her death, which took place when he was about nine years old, was often with her while the older members of the family were busy in the bake-house or the shop. To the latest hour of life he retained the memory of her appearance as she sat reading her Bible, or as she knelt in frequent prayer; and there was always a deep, sweet melody for him in the metrical version of the twentieth psalm, “Mother’s Psalm,” as it was called, on account of her repetition of it in every dark and trying hour. When about four years old, James was sent to a school kept by a man who, having lost a limb, was popularly known as “Timmerleg.” He soon acquired all the learning “Timmerleg” could impart, and was removed to the parish school, where he remained nntil he began his college course. In boyhood, as in manhood, he was bright and blithe, and an old woman described him as “a rosy bairn, wi’ laughin’ mou’ and dimpled cheeks.” His brothers spoke of him as “the wise wean,” and “the young philosopher,” and proudly anticipated the day when his name would be acknowledged as one of the glories of his native land. Their earnings were put into a common purse, and freely bestowed on his education. But though he knew he was to be the gentleman of the family, he was, in his school-days, a cheerful helper of his father and brothers in their trade. His brother Alexander wrote of him, “James was ever so loving, gentle, and obliging, that though I, like most hard workers in a warm atmosphere, was rather quick of temper, I do not recollect ever to have been angry with him. He was aye at the call of the older members of the house, running with rolls to Balbardie House, where, as ‘the bonnie callant’ he was a great favourite; or ready to keep the shop for a time, when he always had a book in his hand.” Alexander watched over him with affectionate tenderness, and in warning him against the temptations to looseness of life which prevailed in the town, would put his arm round his neck, and say, “Others may do this, but it would break a' our hearts, and blast a’ your prospects were you to do it.” One night when he had been out later than usual, and had been spoken to in that manner, he “was greatly troubled, and cried a’ the night like to break his heart.”

It was well for him that he had such warnings ringing in his ears, when at the age of fourteen he left the homely scenes of Bathgate for the excitements of college life in Edinburgh. He was kept from vice and indolence by the thought of the anguish which any blemish in his character would cause to the loving hearts at home. Notwithstanding the generosity of his father and brothers in supplying him with means for his university training, he was economical in his expenditure, only varying his plain diet with the occasional luxury of four pennyworth of fruit. To make the cost still lighter to them he competed for, and won a bursary of the yearly value of £10, which he held for three years. In classics, mathematics, and moral philosophy, he scarcely rose above mediocrity, but excelled in medical studies. He officiated as surgeon’s dresser in the Royal Infirmary, and was so affected by the terrible agony of a Highland woman while undergoing an operation, that he decided to give up all thought of a profession in which he would have to witness so much suffering, and went to the Parliament House to seek employment as clerk to a writer. Happily, the right instinct prevailed, and he returned to the study of medicine, asking a question, which he was afterwards able to answer in the affirmative in a masterly and practical manner, “Can anything be done to make operations less painful?”

In the fifth year of his university course, his father was stricken by fatal sickness, and he attended him with unwearying affection to the day of his death. He was at that time about to pass the examination for surgeon’s degree, but his reading having been interrupted, he was apprehensive of failure, and was disposed to wait another year. Encouraged, however, by his good brother Alexander, he went forward, passed with ease and credit, and was instituted a member of the Royal College of Surgeons, Edinburgh, before he was nineteen years old. Being too young to take his degree as Doctor of Medicine, he returned to Bathgate, and spent his time, partly in wandering over the hills in search of stones and plants, and partly in assisting a local practitioner, who in later years pointed with pride to the labels on his bottles as having been written by the famous physician. But he wished for work, and was a candidate for the situation of surgeon in a small village on the Clyde. The decision of the village folk was against him, and many years after he said, “ When not selected, I felt, perhaps, a deeper amount of disappointment and chagrin than I have ever experienced since that date. If chosen, I would probably have been working there as a village doctor still.” The gratification of his wish might have been a calamity to himself and to the world, and he gratefully confessed the goodness of God in the frustration of his youthful ambition. Still receiving pecuniary aid from his brothers, he resumed his studies in Edinburgh, and took his medical diploma in 1833.

An eminent physician engaged him as his assistant, and at the beginning of his practice, as well as in his more brilliant days, he endeavoured to work out his own ideal of professional activity: “To give as humble agents under a Higher Power, ease to the agonised, rest to the sleepless, strength to the weak, health to the sick, and sometimes life to the dying; to distribute everywhere freely a knowledge of those means that are fitted to defend our fellow-man against the assault of disease, and to quench within him the consuming fire of sickness.” In 1835, Dr. Simpson visited London and Paris. He was not without the poetic sensibilities which are excited by beautiful scenery and works of art. The landscapes of England and France were rich and lovely to his eyes, and he wandered with delight through gorgeous cathedrals, and galleries luminous with the pictures of the great masters. But the principal object of his tour was to ascertain the management of patients in different hospitals, to inspect anatomical museums and schools of medicine, and to obtain personal knowledge of the men who were at that time most eminent in the various branches of medical science.

Returning to Edinburgh with his note-book and his memory full of newly-acquired facts, he was elected, though still a young man, Senior President of the Royal Medical Society, and found scope for all his powers in private practice, in professional dissertations, and in lectures to medical students. He married Miss Jessie Grindlay, of Liverpool, in December, 1839, but there was no honeymoon, for at that time he was engaged in an eager canvass for a vacant chair in the medical department of the University. The appointment was with the Town Council, and each of the candidates competed to the utmost for the favour of its members. Testimonials were accumulated, friends were solicited for their influence, and so spirited was the contest that Dr. Simpson spent £500 in printing and postage. Formidable interests were set in array against the baker’s son, but the council acknowledged his fitness for the office, and he was able to write to his mother-in-law, “Jessie’s honeymoon and mine is to begin to-morrow. I was elected Professor to-day by a MAJORITY OF ONE. Hurrah!!!” He received many congratulations on his appointment, but the one he valued most was from his sister Mary, who had been as a mother to him in his boyhood, and who at the time of the election, was with her husband on board a ship in the channel, about to sail for Australia. “My dear, dear, and fortunate brother, I have taken up my pen to wish you joy, joy; but I feel I am scarcely able to write. I never believed till now, ti^at excess of joy was worse to bear than excess of grief. I cannot describe how, but I certainly feel as I never did all my life. I hope we will be here to-morrow to learn all the particulars of this happy event. My dear, dear James, may God Himself bless you, and prosper you in all your ways.”

Dr. Simpson’s lectures drew many students to the class-room, and the first year his fees amounted to £600. His private practice also increased with his increasing renown, and aristocratic families began to seek his advice. For a number of years he had struggled with pecuniary embarassments, but at length his income exceeded his expenditure, and he was able to repay the amounts which had been advanced to him by members of his family. Though an enthusiast in all that related to his own science, he was at the same time passionately addicted to archeological and other kindred pursuits. When be could snatch an hour from professional duties, it was devoted to the examination of ancient buildings and monumental stones, or to researches in antiquarian literature. His attention at one time was directed to the ancient Leper Houses in England and Scotland, and by consulting old registers, and monastic and municipal chronicles, traced the history of one hundred and nineteen hospitals founded for lepers. To those who have only thought of leprosy as an oriental disease, it is startling to find that in past centuries it was so prevalent in Britain. We may well be thankful to God that no Lazar-House is now needed in any part of the country, and that the sad cry, “Unclean, unclean,” is not heard in any of our streets. Dr. Simpson was also deeply interested in relics of the prehistoric inhabitants of the land; and friends and grateful patients often gratified him by sending accounts of graven rocks, or by augmenting his store of “auld nick-nackets,” with fragments of antique pottery, flint spear-heads, and rude ornaments for the person found in caves or turned up by the plough. He wrote and published works on Archaeology as well, as on surgery and medicine, and, considering his many engagements, evinced astonishing thoroughness and acquaintance with detail in all his books. As a writer, he had not the graphic lines, the gleams of sunny splendour, and touches of gorgeous colour, which came so freely from the pen of Hugh Miller; nor had he the brilliant imaginativeness which enabled Greorge Wilson and David Brewster to throw into scientific disquisition, the glow and enchantment of poetry, but he set his facts and theories in clear light, and gave a charm to them by grouping about them abundance of historical and biographical references.

In 1847, Dr. Simpson said, “I can think of naught else.” This was in allusion to the use of sulphuric ether for the purpose of inducing unconsciousness in surgical operations, and in the line of practice to which he was specially devoted. Confident “that the proud mission of the physician is distinctly twofold, namely, to alleviate human suffering as well as to preserve human life,” he was thankful beyond measure to see how, under the influence of ether, the patient, who otherwise would have been frenzied with pain, calmly slept while the surgeon was amputating a limb or removing an excrescence. But he saw some objections to ether, and experimented on himself with other volatile fluids, in the hope of finding one that would be thoroughly efficacious, and at the same time free from all injurious effects. The anaesthetic properties of chloroform were discovered by him almost accidentally. Some of the liquid, which had its origin in French chemistry, had been beside him for several days. “ But,” he said, “ it seemed so unlikely a liquid to produce results of any kind, that it was laid aside, and on searching for another object among some loose paper, after coming home late one night, my hand chanced to fall upon it, and I poured some of the fluid into tumblers before my assistants, Dr. Keith and Dr. Duncan, and myself. Before sitting down to supper, we all inhaled the fluid, and were all ‘under the mahogany’ in a trice, to my wife’s consternation and alarm. In pursuing the inquiry, perhaps thus rashly begun, I became every day more and more convinced of the superior anaesthetic effects of chloroform as compared with ether.” Chloroform was soon in extensive use both in surgery and obstetric practice, and Dr. Simpson was eulogised by many as a philanthropic discoverer, but there were some, who, on religious grounds, objected to the triumph over pain which had been won by the new anaesthetic. In replying to them he adduced the fact that Christ has removed the curse under which man had fallen, and that the Gospel not only gives assurance of salvation for the sonl, but also by its general spirit and tendency, encourages all attempts to alleviate the sufferings of the body. He also quoted in illustration and support of his principle, Genesis ii. 21, “And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept, and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof.” Though satisfied with chloroform, the professor went on trying the effect of other fluids by personal inhalation of their vapours. One day his butler found him in his room in a state of unconsciousness, and said, “He’ll kill himsel’ yet wi’ thae experiments; and he’s a big fule, for they’ll never find onything better nor chlory.” Chloroform was in such demand that it was even kept in village shops, and Dr. Simpson was able to attest that in one place at least its sale was guarded with praiseworthy care. He was on an antiquarian excursion, and was accompanied by his youngest son, who had a sudden attack of toothache. Going into a druggist’s shop he asked for a little chloroform, but the lady who had charge of the drugs, said, “Na, na; we dinna sell chloroform to folk that kens naething about it.”

Dr. Simpson was spoken of by one who knew him as realising the ideal of a perfect Esculapius, having the brain of an Apollo, the heart of a lion, the eye of an eagle, and the hand of a lady. As his quick judgment and amazing skill became more widely known, Iris services were in such request, and it was thought such a favour to obtain them, that his position in Edinburgh was more like that of a prince than a medical man. His reception rooms were crowded with patients; letters and telegrams were forwarded to him in swift succession, imploring his help, and many noble families were proud and thankful to have him as their physician. Nor was his reputation limited to the British Isles, for people came to consult him from almost all parts of the world, and a host of strangers visited Edinburgh, not to tread the stately gallery of Holyrood, or to see the regalia of the Scottish kings in the castle, but with the hope of receiving benefit from the famous doctor. He was one of the great notabilities of the city; and with a head resembling that of Professor John Wilson, and a countenance expressing intellectual power, yet beaming with kindly feeling, was looked upon as an embodiment of medical genius, and as a benefactor of mankind. Wealth flowed in upon him: he received as much as £300 in one fee, and his professional income was estimated as being not less than £10,000 a year.

But magnificently conspicuous as he was among the medical brotherhood, it was not until 1861 that he sought and obtained that which was needed as the perfecting crown of his gifts and honours— the grace of God. It does not appear that at any time of his life he was inclined to scepticism, or that he was in captivity to any of the grosser forms of dissipation. He was so far in sympathy with the evangelical ministers of Scotland that after the Disruption he became a member of the Free Church, but he had no experience of religion as a joy for his inner life; for though when under the pressure of domestic sorrow or professional troubles he felt the need of Divine support, he did not throw himself in simple faith on the atonement of Christ. He held the Gospel more as a venerable relic of the past than as a vitality more pervasive than that which makes the tree laugh with all its leaves in response to the voice of Spring. But in 1861 he yielded to a number of godly influences that were pressing upon him, and submitting himself to the Scriptural method of salvation, could say on the Christmas Day of that year, “My first happy Christmas; my only one.” His joy was great, and it was heightened by conversions in his family. To a friend he wrote: “Of late the love of God to me and mine has been perfectly transcendent. Christ seems to have taken one and all of my family to Himself for the children of His kingdom. . . . The world seems quite, quite changed; ‘All old things now are passed away.’ ”Family prayer was conducted not simply as a decent ceremony, but as a service abounding in sacred pleasure. Strangers felt themselves to be on holy ground when the hymn was sung by the children and the servants, and the Doctor read a chapter in the Bible, and then sought the blessing of God on the various pursuits of the day. He was not only intent on doing good to those of his own household, but had tender and gracious words for many of his patients, and also took part in evangelical meetings.

To a company of medical students convened by request of the Committee of the Medical Missionary Society, he said: “I feel as if it were scarcely fitting that I should stand up to speak upon the subject on which I am expected to address you,— I, who am one of the oldest sinners and one of the youngest believers in the room. When I got a note requesting me to do so, I was in a sick-bed, ill of fever, and I at once said, ‘I cannot do this.’ But when I came to reflect further, I felt I must do it. I cannot speak earnestly, or as I ought for Jesus, but let me try to speak a little of Him—His matchless love, His great redemption which He offers to you and me.” The doctrines of the Gospel were presented in a forceful manner, and with professional allusions which would be thoroughly appreciated by the audience, and the address was concluded with the following exhortation: “ Many kind friends are trying to awaken you to the momentous importance of these things, and calling upon you to believe in Christ. If any of these, or anything you have heard here, has stirred you up, do not, I beseech you, put aside your anxiety. Follow it up; follow it out. If in your own lodgings, in the dark watches of the night, you are troubled with a thought about your soul—if you hear some one knocking at your heart—listen. It is He Who said, 1800 years ago upon the sea of Galilee, ‘It is I; be not afraid.’ Open the door of your heart. Say to Him, Come in. In Christ you will find a Saviour, a companion, a counsellor, a friend, a brother, who loves you with a love greater than human heart can conceive.”

In 1866 Dr. Simpson received a letter from Lord John Russell, informing him that he had received Her Majesty’s command to offer him a baronetcy, as a recognition of his professional merits, and with special reference to his application of chloroform in surgical practice. The death of a son of great promise caused him to hesitate in accepting the offer, but the arguments of his friends prevailed, and with some violence to his own feelings he was invested with the honour. When it was known that he had received the patent, many letters of congratulation were sent to him, and the Edinburgh people shook hands with him until his arm was weary and sore. But there was no one so proud of the title as his brother Alexander at Bathgate. It was to him gratifying beyond expression that the Jamie who had carried out hot rolls and waited in the baker’s shop had been raised to the rank of a baronet of the United Kingdom. Sir James Simpson did not long enjoy the distinction awarded to him. His strength was broken by excessive labours, and he died on May 6th, 1870. In his last sickness he said, “ I have not lived so near to Christ as I desired to do. I have had a busy life, but have not given so much time to eternal things as I should have sought. Yet I know it is not my merit I am to trust to for eternal life. Christ is all. The hymn expresses my thought—

"Just as I am, without one plea,
But that Thy blood was shed for me.*

I so like that hymn. The words “Jesus only” were frequently repeated by him; and in hope and thankfulness he passed away, in the fifty-ninth year of his age. There was a proposal to give him a tomb in Westminster Abbey, but his family, having regard to his own wish, buried him in Warriston Cemetery. His funeral was magnificent in the numbers who attended it, and the tears of the poor showed how generously he had befriended them. Glowing testimonies were given to his genius as a physician, and his nobleness as a Christian, among which were the following verses from one of his fellow-workers:

“Great in his art and peerless in resource,
He strove the fiend of human pain to quell;
Nor ever champion dared so bold a course
With truer art, or weapons proved so well.

"Yet greater was he in his own great soul,
A brimful fount of pity, warm and pure,—
Which, as the quiv’ring needle for its pole,
Panted to soothe the pains it could not cure.

“On such emprise his ardent heart was bent
While, walking by faith’s holy light, he trod
The Shepherd’s path, with tears and blood besprent,
Which leads the flock up to the hills of God!”


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