Young Simpson was born at Bathgate, Linlithgowshire, a little village about
twenty miles from Edinburgh, on the 7th June, 1811. The Simpson family had
lived there for many years, steady labouring farmer folk. James’s father,
David Simpson, happened to be the village baker, while his mother, Mary
Jervay, came by direct descent from a Huguenot family which had fled from
Guienne to Scotland after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. From his
mother, therefore, James Simpson no doubt inherited his nimbleness of
thought, his gaily pleasant disposition, and his ability to turn his hand to
any kind of work, all of which characteristics he showed in his childhood.
During the summer in which Simpson was
horn, hard times came upon the baker’s household in the steep village street
There were already one daughter and
six other sons in David Simpson’s family. An epidemic of fever had swept
through the village, money was scarce, sickness and embarrassments had run
the Bathgate baker sadly into debt. Neighbours shook their heads when James
arrived, and said that another mouth to feed would well-nigh bring ruin to
However, the arrival of the seventh
son seemed to bring fortune. Business improved, debts were paid, and when
the news of Waterloo arrived at Bathgate, James Simpson had just begun his
schooldays, while his parents had moved to new and larger premises across
the street. James’s first schoolmaster, who was a Mr. Henderson, had a
wooden leg, and so he went by the name of "Timmerleg" among his pupils. The
weaving population of Bathgate were quite intelligent, and "Timmerleg" was
far above the usual run of village pedagogues. He was also a keen
naturalist, and James Simpson, his brightest pupil, learnt to love nature no
less than other subjects from the wooden-legged Henderson. So far in advance
of his playmates was he that they all soon referred to him as "the wise
wean," that is, the wise child.
Planning a University Career
As George Herbert said, "A good mother
is worth a hundred schoolmasters," and James Simpson had the best of
mothers. Directly she saw that her youngest son was outgrowing his present
school, she set to work to plan a university career for him. The family
cash-box was opened and its contents counted, economics were discussed,
brows wrinkled, intricate calculations made on odd scraps of paper. His
mother died when James was but nine, yet she had already set in motion the
wheels which were to carry him to Edinburgh.
At the age of fourteen James Simpson
left Bathgate and was enrolled as a student in the art classes of Edinburgh
University. "Very, very young and very solitary, very poor and almost
friendless," is how Simpson, when receiving the freedom of the city forty
years later, described his condition on his first arrival at Edinburgh. "He
was a painstaking, but not a specially brilliant scholar," wrote one of his
class-mates. At first he was downcast, homesick, and distressed at the
largeness and strangeness of the city. Soon, however, urged on by Professor
Pillans, he won the Stuart Bursary of £10 per annum, which vastly encouraged
Begins to Study Medicine
In 1827 Simpson began his medical
studies, and determined to be a doctor. He worked with ceaseless diligence
and marked originality, and soon gained the first place in his class. In
1830 he passed his final examination with honours, and in 1831, when only
just out of his teens, he was made a member of the Royal College of Surgeons
at Edinburgh: He was still too young to take his degree as doctor of
medicine and practise, so for a while he worked at a minor assistantship in
the medical school at Edinburgh. He also went on a tour through Holland,
Belgium, and northern Germany.
In 1835 Simpson settled down to
acquire an Edinburgh practice, and set up his plate in Heriot Row,
Stockbridge, an unusually healthy, suburb of the city. Soon he found
patients, who, he reported, "are mostly poor, but still they are patients."
After a year’s hard work he obtained a hospital appointment, which brought
him new experience and spread the fame of his deftness, gentleness, and
sympathy. As a sequel, patients with fees in their hands came to seek out
this skilful young doctor in Heriot Row.
Wins a Professorship and a Wife
In 1839 Dr. Hamilton, professor of
midwifery at Edinburgh, resigned his chair. Several years before this
Simpson had pointed out Hamilton to some friends at a university function,
remarking, "Do you see that old gentleman? Well, I intend to have his gown."
He now set to work to obtain the vacant chair. Youth and bachelorhood were
objected against him. The latter disability he had long wished to remove,
and he now proceeded to pen the most quaint letter of proposal to Miss
Jessie Grindlay, a second cousin of his: "I write to make an application—a
formal application—for a wife, and to solicit from you, not a testimonial in
your handwriting, but your hand itself" (earlier in the letter Simpson had
described how he had written many letters asking for testimonials to back
his application for the chair he so much coveted). Jessie Grindlay’s answer
was completely satisfactory to Dr. Simpson. They were married on Boxing Day,
1839, and before the end of January, 1840, Mrs. Simpson was able to tell all
her friends that Dr. Simpson had become Professor Simpson.
Sudden Rise to Fame
Simpson quickly became famous. He
could heal where others had abandoned hope. His attractive presence, silvery
voice, and immense charm inspired hope and confidence in every heart.
Patients came to seek him out from all over Europe, and he had much more to
do than he could find time for, as he had his professorial duties to fulfil
as well as attend to his practice. His old Bathgate friends, however, always
had first call on his time. Was he never so busy, the formula "An old friend
from Bathgate" opened his consulting room door. Once, when he was engaged
with such a patient, a then famous authoress rang his bell, but was informed
by his servant that no more patients could be seen that day. "But," said the
lady, "I am sure I can be admitted; take my name, he knows me." "Dr. Simpson
knows the queen, ma’am," was the answer. Such was Simpson’s practice, for in
1847 he was appointed one of Queen Victoria’s physicians for Scotland.
The horrors of the operating theatre
before the advent of anaesthetics had always haunted Simpson’s dreams and
preyed upon his mind. In 1846 the news came from America of the first trial
of ether in surgery. No one hailed the discovery more heartily than Simpson,
who at once adopted its use in his own practice. But soon, with his usual
prodigious energy, he was on the track of some better anaesthetic than
ether, the use of which was often attended by danger to the patient, besides
being otherwise inconvenient. Nightly, after the day’s work was over,
Simpson and his two assistants, Drs. Keith and Duncan, inhaled various drugs
in order to discover some really satisfactory anaesthetic.
Once, when experimenting with
anaesthetics, Simpson paid a visit to Lyon Playfair (who afterwards became
Lord Playfair). The famous chemist was at work in his laboratory, so Simpson
took the opportunity of asking him if he possessed any new liquid capable of
To Simpson’s unbounded joy, Playfair
told him that his assistant had recently prepared a liquid which was well
worthy of experiment. Immediately Simpson suggested that he should go into
his friend’s private room and inhale some of the vapour to see what effect
it would have. Playfair absolutely refused to allow such a thing to happen,
unless the experiment was tried on two rabbits beforehand.
Reluctantly Simpson agreed, chafing at
what he considered a needless waste of time. The new anaesthetic was given
to the annimals, and with much delight Simpson watched their recovery of
consciousness. He returned home, and went back the next day determined that
he and his assistant should inhale the vapour. Before the test, however, his
assistant suggested that they should see how the rabbits were faring. The
inspection was made—both animals were found to be dead.
Thus, through Simpson’s reckless
bravery, medicine nearly lost him before his great discovery had been made.
On the evening of the 4th November,
1847, Simpson and his assistants met as usual to inhale possible new
anaesthetics. Dr. Keith started to inhale half a small tumblerful first. In
two minutes he was under the dining-room table. Simpson and Duncan soon
followed him. Anyone suddenly entering the room would have taken for a
drunken orgy one of the epoch-making moments in the history of medicine.
"Far Better and Stronger than Ether"
Simpson was the first to recover his
senses. "This is far better and stronger than ether," said he to himself.
"This will turn the world upside down." All the while Mrs. Simpson, her
sister, and her niece, had watched the three men in horror. So soon as
Simpson showed signs of returning consciousness, they plied him with anxious
questions as to "how he felt." The great doctor laughed, for he knew now
that pain was conquered, that he had laid his hand upon a tremendous new
"gift of healing."
Nevertheless, a fierce and dogged
resistance arose against the introduction of chloroform. Professional and
theological arguments and abuse poured on Simpson from all sides. He met his
detractors in the open field with huge relish. Actual demonstrations and
statistics silenced medical objectors. Ignorant theological prejudice,
however, was more difficult to overcome. Chloroform was "unnatural," it was
said. "So are railway trains, carriages and the steamboats," retorted
Simpson, who, further, published pamphlets refuting the theologians on their
own scriptural grounds, showing, moreover, that he knew his Bible better
than they. This battle, which now seems so remote and fantastic, raged
bitterly for several years;. but it was half won when Queen Victoria herself
took chloroform, and when Dr. Chalmers, then the foremost of Scottish
divines, declared that the question had not even the remotest connexion with
Happy Laughing Magician
Simpson then established the use of
anaethetics throughout the civilized world, and passed on to other
questions. Nevertheless chloroform remains his greatest triumph and his
finest discovery. For many years he continued to bring health and happiness
to multitudes, both rich and poor, giving himself to the work without
thought for his own health. This little, rather stout doctor, with his
twinkling eyes and happy laughing manner grew to be looked upon as a kind of
magician, whose very presence and touch could heal. "Hide my hat," he would
say to his butler, on returning home for a few scanty hours of rest, it is
such a tell-tale."
Ultimately, of course, overwork told
upon him. He grew less strong in every way, and sciatica crippled him for
months together. At last his willing heart finally rebelled against the
enormous strain he put upon it, and he became a semi-invalid. As the sun set
on the 6th Mary, 1870, Simpson’s life journey came to an end, and after
years of ceaseless toil he rested at last.
Queen Victoria desired that he should
be buried in Westminster Abbey, but, according to his own wish, he lies
buried in a grave at Warriston, overlooking Edinburgh, the city whose ills
he so splendidly worked to heal. Simpson was one of the greatest doctors
that ever came into the world to cure its ills; and to all his thousands of
patients — to nearly all Britain—he was "the beloved physician, who never
tired of doing good."
James Young Simpson And Chloroform (1811 - 1870) by H.
Laing Gordon (1897)
I have endeavoured to condense the vast amount
of matter which has been written concerning this Master of Medicine and his
work into the form of a readable narrative, and to represent him in his
social and intellectual environment in accordance with the object of this
Series. The selections from his own writings illustrate as far as possible
his versatility and many-sided character. I have chosen for quotation out
of the numerous sketches and memoirs of him those written from undoubted
knowledge of the man.
I am indebted especially to Professor A. R.
Simpson for kind advice, to Mr. Cuthbertson of the Edinburgh University
Library for useful help, to Mr. C. Louis Taylor for valuable criticism, and
to my wife for assistance in research and compilation. I have also to thank
those friends who from time to time have favoured me with personal
reminiscences of Sir James.
The following are the chief works, in addition
to Simpson's own writings, from which my information has been drawn: — (1)
"The Jubilee of Anaesthetic Midwifery"; (2) "Keiller and Crede"; (3)
"History of the Chair of Midwifery in the University of Edinburgh," being
addresses by Professor A. R. Simpson; (4) Miss Eve B. Simpson's "Sir James
Simpson"; and her (5) "Dogs of other Days;" (6) "Twenty Years and their
Lesson; a "Retrospect and Review" (Scots Observer, 1891); (7) Dr. Duns's
"Memoir of Sir J. Y. Simpson"; (8) Professor Gusserow's "Zur Erinnerung an
Sir J. Y. Simpson"; (9) Mr. Cuthbertson's "Student's Pilgrimage"; (10) "The
Story of Edinburgh University," by Sir A. Grant; (11) "The Life of Sir
Robert Christison"; (12) "The Life of Robert Knox"; and numerous back
numbers of the Century Magazine, the Lancet, the British Medical
Journal\ the Medical Times and Gazette, the Edinburgh Medical Journal\ &c.,
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