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Sir James Young Simpson
Chapter I. Birth and Childhood (1811-1825)


The state of the healing art at Simpson's birth—Birthplace—Family superstitions—His father's bakery—His mother's Huguenot descent —Commencement of schooldays—Natural and antiquarian features of Bathgate district—The village hand-loom weavers as antiquarians and naturalists—His interest in Nature and craving for knowledge—Brothers' and sister's care for him—Size of his head-Village doctor's record of his birth—Schooldays cease at age of fourteen—Influence of his environment in developing his character.

Jams Young Simpson, who will ever be remembered as the discoverer of the pain-annulling power of chloroform, was born in the year 1811, at a period when there was room for a hero in the practice of the healing art in the British Islands.

It is true that in the seventeenth century Harvey had laid bare the great fact of the circulation of the blood and the practical Thomas Sydenham had swept aside the highly empirical systems and theories of medicine which had successively supplanted each other since Hippocrates first taught, and urged men to found their knowledge upon what they actually saw— on observation and experiment; and that in the eighteenth century men like Cheyne, Heberden, Cullen, and the wonderful Jenner had appreciably assisted in developing medicine at the same time that Hunter was raising surgery nearer to the level of a science. But even while Simpson was growing out of childhood all the powers of such professional giants as Bright, Addison, Abernethy, Astley Cooper, and Charles Bell, were insufficient to dispel the massive cloud of mystery and superstition which enveloped the practice of both medicine and surgery in this country and obscured whatever there was of truth in the teaching of these men.

In the first decade or two of this century the medical profession had not yet entirely abandoned the use of the golden-headed cane, nor had what Oliver Wendell Holmes calls the solemn farce of overdrugging yet -ceased. " Humours," " impostumes," " iliac passions," and such like were still spoken of—terms now heard only amongst country-folks in remote districts and that rarely, or encountered in curious old medical publications. Messes and abominations, prepared by the apothecaries according to more or less secret recipes handed down through the Middle Ages, were swallowed in good faith; blood-letting was still a panacea; and such remedies as that of holding a live puppy to the body for the relief of colic still had their professional advocates, but happily a decreasing number; whilst those pains

". . . In the hour,
When the veil of the body we feel
Rent round it—while torments reveal
The motherhood's advent in power "

—pains which Simpson was the first truly to relieve by his application of anaesthetics, were gravely said to be alleviated by the swallowing of a concoction of white onions and oil. Surgery was no doubt ahead of medicine ; but the early surgical records of this century have little more than a curious interest to modern practitioners. Operations entirely unknown to our professional forefathers less than a century ago are now performed in safety daily. Such mysterious diseases as "icteric irritative fever" and "acute sinking" after operations, dreaded then with the fear that is always inspired by unseen or ill-understood dangers, have vanished before the progress of modern science in which the introduction of anaesthesia was the first great step.

The practice of the branch of medicine which Simpson made so peculiarly his own—that of obstetrics—originally in the hands of women only, had been fiercely contested for by the two sexes during two centuries, and such was the feeling against man-midwives in Scotland that the dispute had scarcely ceased at Simpson's birth. The stronger sex, however, was then at last asserting its superiority, and to be an accoucheur was beginning to be considered after all as worthy of a gentleman. The despised art was preparing for its renaissance.

Simpson grew to manhood whilst science, aided by precise methods of accurate observation, was shedding new light upon physic, surgery, and obstetrics. In fulfilling his great part in establishing the healing art on a firm scientific basis, Simpson encountered the full force of the ignorance and prejudice of his day both within and without his profession. It was, perhaps, fortunate that he was brought up in a small village and in a rank of life where he would meet from his earliest days with many superstitious beliefs and practices, strange and utterly irrational. A mind such as his would meet, reason, and experiment these out of existence. Probably through these circumstances he conceived the taste for archaeology and antiquarian research which were his recreation in later years ; but, what was more important, he gained also some training for the struggle with ignorance, untruth, and irrationalism, into which he threw with his eager vigour the whole strength of his manhood.

Simpson was born in the village of Bathgate, in Linlithgowshire, where his father, David Simpson, was the local baker. David's father, who died at the ripe age of ninety-one a few years after James's birth, was the descendant of a line of small hard-working farmers, who added to his work and his profit the practice of farriery. Although modern science has, by the aid of bacteriology, proved such practitioners of the rough veterinary medicine of the day to have been right in ascribing to unseen influences many of the diseases of animals which they found themselves powerless to check, the methods they employed for treatment when what they called witchcraft was at work scarcely have the support of present-day practitioners. In one of his addresses upon archaeology Simpson records how his grandfather ordered and his own father took part in the burial alive of a cow in order to appease the evil spirit which was spreading the plague of murrain with fatal effect. And the older gentleman was known to have had more than one serious encounter with a witch. On one occasion an old beggar woman, who plied her calling in quite an original method—that of being wheeled in a barrow from farm to farm—hurled curses at old Simpson for ordering a servant to wheel her from his house on to her next calling-place, and vowed an awful vengeance on his family if he did not replace the servant with one of his stalwart sons. The farmer recollected that an ill event had followed the old woman's last visit, and quickly drew a sharp flint from his pocket and made a gash across her forehead with it. "Ah," he exclaimed, "I see what ye're noo, ye auld witch but I've scored ye aboon the braith and my house is safe."

Simpson noted these and many other curious practices and beliefs, and afterwards pointed out in one of his addresses that they were probably, for the most part, relics of the pagan creeds and customs of our ancestors. He urged the making of a collection of the folk-lore of Scotland, ere it utterly disappeared before the march of modern civilisation, and suggested that, perhaps, some archaeological Cuvier might one day be able to re-construct from these mythological fragments distinct pictures of the heathen practices, rites, and faiths of our forefathers.

In his early boyhood he listened to many stories of local and family superstitions told to him with all the earnestness of a firm believer by his father. He himself was the object of superstitious admiration to the simple villagers all through his boyhood, and they freely foretold great deeds from him in later years ; for he was a seventh son, and the good luck which seventh sons were supposed to bring had appeared in the family soon after his birth. Up to the day on which James first saw the light, June 7, 1811, the baker's business had been going steadily from bad to worse, and the shop books showed that on that very day the lowest depths were reached. The baker, David Simpson, seems to have been curiously lacking in business method, although he was a hard-working man. But after James's birth he wisely interested his wife in his affairs, with the result that she energetically and successfully bestirred herself to recoup their fallen fortunes. Mrs. Simpson was directly descended from a fugitive Huguenot family, settled for many years on a farm near Bathgate, and intermarried with well-known families. Through her, indeed, Simpson claimed a distant relationship with the national hero, Sir William Wallace. The cares of" her family and the strain of managing the increasing baker's business proved too much for her always delicate constitution, and she died when James was only nine years old. There is no doubt that the youngest child and favourite son had an unusually large share of his mother's society during those years; he was a peculiarly attractive child, "a rosy bairn wi' laughin' mou' and dimpled cheeks," and his manner, even when he was little more than an infant, was quiet and affectionate. When physical sufferings overtook the mother, the child's quiet sympathy and engaging manner helped and comforted her. Her own nature was bright, vivacious, and energetic, quick to think and prompt to act; and she was full of love, sympathy, and piety. These maternal traits influenced the youth, and added a soft, refined—delicately refined —tone to the paternal influence, whence he received self-reliance and habits of persevering industry. '

The boy's school-life began at the age of four years. The orthodox learning came very easily to him he entered into both work and play so wholeheartedly that he at once became known as the "wise wean," and was at the same time ever sought after by his school-mates as a companion in out-door sports. The parish schoolmaster was one James Taylor, who had considerable ability for the post, and encouraged his pupils by kindly personal interest to develop affection for learning. But for Simpson there were other teachers and greater subjects for study in the countryside around Bathgate. The district was full of rich treasures for the field naturalist and for the antiquarian. Bathgate lies between the Firth of Forth and the Pentland Hills, in a geologically varied district, with a varied and abundant flora and fauna— more so in those days when Bathgate was a small village of hand-loom weavers than latterly, when it was a thriving little town, the centre of a coal, shale, and ironstone mining industry. The archaeological features of the neighbourhood were full of interest. There was the famous "Catstane," of Kirkliston, which had puzzled antiquarians even before the establishment of the Scots Society in 1780, and at Kipps was one of the few remaining cromlechs— and that a ruined one—in Scotland; whilst the line of the Roman wall between the Firth of Forth and the Clyde was not far distant. There were traces of a Cistercian monastery founded by David I., and various hills and fields and caves were associated with the names of Sir William Wallace, Robert Bruce, and King Edward I.

Simpson thoroughly familiarised himself in boyhood with the natural features, as well as with the antiquarian objects in the district. He continued to investigate them during his vacations when a student at Edinburgh University, and rendered the neighbourhood famous archaeologically by masterly monographs written when he was at the height of his fame. Amongst the village hand-loom weavers, a race of peculiarly observant and intelligent men, there were some who studied both the antiquarian objects and the natural history of Linlithgowshire. Simpson used to speak of one man, a daily labourer at the loom, who was able to write, in correct Latin, an accurate description of any plant or animal brought before him, although his earnings at the loom never amounted to fifty pounds a year. These men thoroughly enjoyed the evident interest of the "young philosopher" in their discussions and demonstrations, at the same time kindly directing his mind towards the simple, painstaking, true methods of observing and reflecting upon nature. There was no lack of change in his environment for him; his interest in natural phenomena was roused and kept alive during his drives round the country side delivering bread to the farmers and cottagers, or in occasional visits to his parents' relations. He daily took his turn behind the shop counter, reading, writing, or drawing in the interval of waiting for customers. He trained himself to read or do his school lessons as readily in a roomful of romping children as in the quiet of the bedroom. It has been said that he never knew an idle moment from the day of his birth onwards, and his was such an indomitable and persevering energy that the remark is no exaggeration; But the pathway to greatness was made specially smooth for James Simpson. He was set upon it, and protected in his childhood, and guided in his youth, with the one definite object always in view. The Simpson family as well as the whole Bathgate community, took it for granted that eminence was to be his in whatever walk of life he entered seriously upon. His sister Mary and his brother Alexander looked upon him as a special care ; the former watched over him as a mother, and the latter helped him in the ups and downs of boyhood, just as he constantly stood by him throughout the difficult days of his later career. It had always been a custom in Scots families of humble rank that one child, either from the exhibition of a natural aptitude, or through the ambition of the parents, was singled out to receive the advantages of a fuller education such as is within the reach of every able lad in Scotland. Honour and glory would thus be brought to the family, greatest of all if from the pulpit, while the less favoured members of the family would plod on in the same sphere of life as their parents. The world owes a great deal to the Simpsons, and particularly to Alexander, who cheerfully seconded their father's efforts to help forward their young brother, without a suspicion of jealousy. They knew he would be great some day, and therein they looked for their reward.

Happily there were ample means for all their requirements derived from the now prosperous bakery. The money was kept in one drawer, the till where the shop earnings were placed. All the household were free to draw thence supplies for their ordinary wants, James without stint; and he alone was exempted from the condition that he who profited must also contribute by the sweat of his brow. The boy took very full advantage of his fortunate circumstances and drank deeply of all the knowledge that came near and ever hunted for more. With each succeeding year the craving to know, and to know thoroughly, became more and more his ruling passion ; by the time his schooldays were over it had gained complete mastery over him; happily for the human race Providence had so endowed him that when knowledge had come wisdom did not linger.

He was never in any way led away by the temptations that no doubt beset every boy in a village of hard-drinkers such as Bathgate was in his youth. Alexander took pains to warn him—"Others may do this, Jamie, but it would break all our hearts and blast all your prospects were you to do it," he said. It was not necessary to make appeals to James to Work and fulfil the family predictions; he was as firmly determined to be great as they were sure he would be. He never forgot how much he owed to the loving help of his family, and to the fact that he was the youngest son growing up at. a time when the family struggles were fairly over; when instead of its being an effort for the parents to provide the necessary funds for his education, the shop till was well filled and the elder brothers and the loving sister were at hand eagerly willing to help. In student days when struggles came and the path seemed dark and beset with dangers, the knowledge of the firm faith in his powers of the family at home and of the scarcely smaller faith of the weavers, was a powerful incentive in the moments when he required any other than that of the spirit within him.

We cannot feel otherwise than thankful that up to the age of fourteen, when his schooldays ended, he had access to but a limited stock of literature wherewith to gratify his hunger for knowledge. To satisfy his appetite he was driven into the fields and the forests; every sense was stimulated, and became developed through repeated use. Thus he laid the foundation of his phenomenal faculty of rapid and accurate observation, and of his no less phenomenal memory.

His imagination was fed with the legends of the district and tales of his remote moss-trooper ancestors told to him of an evening by his father. Though happily saved from being a bookworm to the exclusion of sounder means for acquiring knowledge, he devoured and digested every scrap of literature which came in his way. Like all Scots children of his class he learnt his Bible thoroughly from end to end—a knowledge which served him well in later years. Shakespeare followed the Bible in his own review or his favourite reading as a boy; but a gazetteer or an almanac was quite as acceptable. His taste was for solid fact—fact which he could learn and put to the test; thus the great open book of Nature was the attraction he most readily yielded to. But nothing in book form ever came amiss to him; if between the covers there was useful information to be had, Simpson extracted it and stored it away in his capacious brain.

The unusually large size of his head, a source of admiration in manhood, was in childhood an object of wonder to observers. In manhood he wore his hair in long locks, and this was apparently his habit in boyhood. Once a strange barber cut his hair so close that his brother took upon himself to go and rebuke the man. "The callant had suck a muckle head," was the retort, "I was doin' my best to mak' it look respectable." A close-cropped head gave altogether a too sportive appearance to the wyoung philosopher in the eyes of the watchful elder brother.

There is no evidence that Simpson displayed in his schooldays any special leaning towards the medical profession ; it cannot be reasonably urged that his grandfather's rough skill in the treatment of animals fostered any medical tendency in him, for James was but five years old when the old man died. Even had he been of an age to understand them, the methods employed would have scarcely recommended themselves to a youth of Simpson's nature, sufficiently to raise a spirit of emulation within him. It is also not recorded that the Village doctor took any special interest in the boy or brought any influence to bear upon him; although his note-book thus gives the earliest record of the future prince of obstetricians :—

275.—June 7. Simpson, David, baker, Bathgate. Wife, Mary Jarvie. AE. 40. 8th child, son. Natus 8 o'clock. Uti veniebam natus. Paid 10s. 6d.

James displayed his superiority so decidedly in the village school that when he reached the age of fourteen it was decided to send him to Edinburgh University without further waste of time. It was no unusual age for boys to commence their University career in Scotland. There was no secondary education in the Scots provinces, but instruction intermediate between that of the parish school and what is ordinarily known as University education was given within the walls of the University itself. Boys of humble rank who aspired to a profession were sent up, as indeed many still are, at the age of fourteen or fifteen, to attend these junior Arts classes in which this instruction was, and still is, imparted. The University was crowded with schoolboys of all ranks of life gathered together from town and country, and consisted of nothing more than a collection of class-rooms devoted to the giving of instruction in lecture form. This stepping-stone of junior classes threw open the higher education to hundreds of youths whose equals in England had no such advantage at that time. Scots University education besides being thorough was decidedly cheap, so that the church, law, and medicine received many recruits from the class out of which Simpson was drawn.

His environment up to the age of fourteen was well calculated to train him for the great work that lay before him. The legends of the district, and the sight of the objects of archaeological interest which he came across in his rambles out of school hours, were powerful stimuli to his sensations; whilst the accurate observation of natural phenomena in field and hedge which the kindly interested weavers helped him to, was also a valuable educative influence. It is probable that his senses received much of the training which was to lead to his ultimately being the greatest physician of his day by these means, rather than from the instruction imparted to him in the village school, or derived by him independently from the books that came in his way. It was undoubtedly a fortunate circumstance that he was born and bred in an out-of-the-way country district, where he drew his lessons from Nature and the phenomena which lay round him, rather than in a great city where he would have been educated on the stereotyped orthodox system. When we look further back, asking why he saw sermons in stones and books in the running brooks, to which the bulk of his schoolfellows were entirely

blind, we are bound to confess that we find no satisfactory answer in his family history, to which it is customary to look for an explanation of such tendencies. Heredity played no great part in making Simpson great; from the paternal side there was imparted to him a vigorous physique; from his mother he received the bright, happy, sympathetic, and alert disposition, which descended through her from his French ancestors. He was provided with a brain of marvellous quality and phenomenal size. But it was the environment which acted upon this brain and brought out the capacities born in him without any apparent hereditary bias, and which might have remained entirely latent under less favourable circumstances. No small part of the development was due to the people among whom he lived; a race of men accustomed to rely upon their senses which were always with them, rather than upon books which they seldom saw, even if they were able to read them; and to observe not only all that lay around them, but also the characteristics of their fellow-men with whom they were brought into contact— the close contact of different classes which obtains in village and rural life. Simpson was taught to study Nature whether in field or fellow-creature first, and the knowledge and opinions of men as expressed in books afterwards.


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