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Sir James Young Simpson
Chapter VIII. Home Life-Controversies


The foundations of his fame; Comparison with Boerhaave—Family letters—Home amusements—Affection for children—And for animals—Puck—Holidays—Wide area of practice—"The arrows of malignancy "—Squabbles—Homoeopathy—Mesmerism—Refuses to leave Edinburgh.

GREAT as was Simpson's contemporary fame, the chief part of it had its origin in his indescribable personal power over his fellows, and in his inexhaustible energy. When to these was added the reputation won by the discovery of chloroform's anaesthetic properties, he stood not only as the most famous physician of his day, but also as a man marked out for posthumous fame. The personal characteristics of the man were speedily forgotten after his death, save by those who had been brought under their influence; the marked prominence given to Simpson and the "discovery of chloroform" in the numerous recent reviews of Queen Victoria's reign on the occasion of the Diamond Jubilee, indicates that it is by chloroform that Simpson will ever be remembered. His lasting reputation depends on this work, not upon the characteristics which made him famous in the judgment of his contemporaries. The only physician in comparatively modern times, whose reputation approached Simpson's in magnitude was Hermann Boerhaave (1668 to 1738), the Dutch physician, whose fame and influence during his own lifetime were immense. Boerhaave's leading characteristics greatly resembled Simpson's: he had an enormous capacity for acquiring information, and a wonderful facility for imparting instruction to others; his energy and industry were indefatigable, and his memory prodigious. He taught from separate Chairs in Ley den the Theory of Medicine, the Practice of Medicine, Botany, Chemistry, and Clinical Medicine, and at the same time carried on his large practice. Patients of both sexes flocked to him from all quarters of the globe, and he is said to have accumulated from his practice a fortune of 200,000 in five and thirty years. Although his treatment and method were, according to our modern knowledge, unscientific, his success in practice was as great as Simpson's ; it sprang from th.e same cause; a wonderful magnetic personal influence, which commanded confidence and faith, so that he succeeded with the same possibly quite simple means which were fruitless in the hands of others. In his day all Europe rang with Boerhaave's name. To-day he is practically unknown. His books x34 are antiquated, and if known, are neglected, by modern physicians. He achieved nothing of lasting benefit to humanity. His fate, at least so far as the public is concerned, would undoubtedly have been Simpson's,, in spite of his obstetric and gynaecological work, had it not been for the discovery of chloroform.

The increased fame and greatly increased professional income which followed the successful struggle for anaesthesia did not affect Simpson's homely characteristics. He found time in the midst of it all to enjoy the pleasures of home in the society of those he loved best, and of intimate friends. He took a keen delight in quite the smallest enjoyments of the home circle. A characteristic letter was written to his wife in the summer of 1849 ; she had gone with the children to the Isle of Man 5 he told her the great and small events of his daily life :—

"Delighted to hear from you that all were so well. Everything goes on nicely here. I have been looking out for a headache (but keep excellently well), for I have been working very busily, and scarcely with enough of sleep. Yesterday beat (as Clark writes it) any day I ever yet saw in the house. Did not get out till half-past four, and the drawing-room actually filled beyond the number of chairs and seats ! Have had a capital sleep, and got up to look at the ducks; but none laying this morning, so I write instead. To-day I have a fancy to run out to Bathgate, and I think I Iwill, . . . Yesterday dined with Miller, and Williamson, the Duke of Buccleuch's huntsman, enlightened us about dogs. Miller and I go to Hamilton Palace on Saturday. . . . My ducks won't lay any more eggs, at which I feel very chagrined. . . . Two salmon came as presents last week. I gave one to Mrs. Bennet. We are beginning a new batch of examinations at the college. Such a sleep as I had yesterday morning! I came home by the last Glasgow train, very tired. Tom came to waken me at eight, but I snored so that he didn't. He called me at half-past nine. I don't think I had stirred from the moment I lay down. This morning I have been reading in bed since six. I did not rise till now (half-past seven), because there was no duck laying."

In another letter written on the same occasion he says:—

". . . . Tell Davie I expect a letter from him. Say to Walter that yesterday Carlo jumped into the carriage after me and saw with me several patients. He usually mounted a chair at the side of each bed and looked in. But Mrs. S. gave him too much encouragement. He leaped into bed altogether and tramped upon a blister! which was very painful." 

It was his custom to keep open house at breakfast < and luncheon time ; but the evening meal was, as a . rule, reserved so that he might see and enjoy his own family and intimates. He lived exceedingly plainly himself; he did not smoke; his drink was water but he delighted in setting a goodly repast before his guests. He loved a romp with his children, and spared an occasional hour from the afternoon for that enjoyment. The same energy entered into his play that was seen in his work. A craze ran through fashionable circles in the fifties for tableaux vivants, and was taken up by the Simpson household. He entered with spirit into the new amusement, perhaps more keenly because he saw an opportunity of combining in such representations instruction with amusement. Historical personages and scenes were represented, as well as illustrations of poetry and fiction. With his infective enthusiasm he pressed poets and painters, grave and gay, into service, and there is a record of one highly successful entertainment at 52, Queen Street, in 1854, to which young and old alike were invited. On this occasion most of the scenes represented serious events in Scots history, but Simpson himself seems to have supplied a little comedy. Sandwiched between a scene of "Flora Macdonald watching Prince Charlie " and one of " Rebecca and Eleazar at the Well" came that of " The Babes in the Wood." Simpson and a professional colleague disported themselves as the Babes, and appeared sucking oranges and dressed as children—short dresses, pinafores, frilled drawers, white socks, and children's shoes. They wandered about a while, and then lay weeping down to die to an accompaniment of roars of laughter and to the great delight of the juveniles. It is but a small incident to chronicle, but it shows in his home life the great physician who was beloved by thousands. His deep sympathies made him delight in the society of children. As years increased, and with them work became overwhelming and worries and troubles persistent, he appreciated more and more the refreshment of a frolic with his children. He echoed Longfellow's pure words:—

"Come to me, oh ye children,
For I hear you at your play,
And the questions that perplexed me
Have vanished quite away.

For what are all our contrivings,
And the wisdom of our books,
When compared with your caresses
And the gladness of your looks."

His affectionate disposition and kindly manner gained the devotion of his many child patients ; and his own family bereavements made him a sympathetic physician and friend to many a sorrowing mother. There was no cant or affectation in his sympathy ; it grew out of his large heart.

Animals also he was fond of and gentle to, as we know from the history of the dogs who successively reigned in the household, so charmingly given to us by his daughter. One episode in the life of Puck, a black and tan terrier more intelligent than " breedy^*^ deserves repetition. The dog had accompanied the Professor and some of his children into the countr one afternoon on an expedition to dig for antiquarian relies. "After tea Puck, seeing every one carrying something to the station, demanded the honour of relieving his master of a Lancet, and went off with his small burden looking very important. ... At the station the dog was missing. All got into their places but Puck. CI will follow in the next train,' said the Professor ; 4 Puck is too dear a little friend to lose. . . .' All he found of Puck was a muddy Lancet^ and the last that had been seen of the old dog was that he was pushing his way through a crowd of idle colliers, where it was supposed his energies had been so engrossed in guarding the Lancet that he had lost sight of his party. . . . His master stayed there until next morning, and some remembered afterwards how Puck's loss gave them another evening's talk with one they loved, though he broke in on the reminiscences with CI wonder where little Puck is,' or cIs that his bark?" No Puck came to demand entrance, and hope of his return was given up after three days passing without news of him. His master was thinking of the sorrowful letter he would have to write to Puck's companions when late one night, as he paced wearily up and down the room, he thought he heard a faint bark. There had been a great deal of listening of late for the little dog's bark ; but it seemed vain to ' think of Puck's retracing his steps through an unknown country for so many miles. Still the Professor opened the door and called. Up the area steps something did limp into the hall. That it was Puck seemed doubtful at first, for he was quick and bright, and this animal was a lame ball of mud hardly able to crawl. The bright eyes, however, were Puck's; and he confirmed his identity by exerting his remaining energies to give one leap gratefully to kiss the friendly face that bent over him. . . His truant playfellows received a long letter from their father telling them of Puck's adventure and imagining Puck's feelings and trials through his long wanderings. . . . That letter always recalls Puck and his never-resting master bending over his desk, despite press of business, to send the news to Puck's companions."

Simpson looked no further than his own nursery and circle of close friends for the refreshment and recreation which nature demanded in the course of his busy daily life. But holidays were necessary sometimes. He exhibited all the aversion of an enthusiastically busy man to leaving his work, but would yield sometimes to the solicitations of friends and would more readily leave his patients for a time if a prospect was held out of some interesting archaeological research to be indulged in. In 1850 he suffered from an abscess, caused by blood-poisoning contracted during professional work. At the request of his friends Professor Syme was called in, somewhata to the chagrin of Simpson's old friend and colleague, Miller. It is interesting to note that in spite of thel recent controversy on anaesthetics, Montgomery of* Dublin, who had keenly opposed him, was amongst "the first to write a sympathetic note on hearing of his illness; although dissenting from some of Simpson's professional utterances, Montgomery was influenced by the Professor's personality to respect him as a man and a worker.

After this illness Simpson took a rapid run round the Continent, visiting those cities where anything professional was to be picked up. As he expressed it himself he "scampered" round the Universities, Museums, and Hospitals, seeing and hearing all that was to be seen and heard. He stowed away the newly acquired knowledge in the recesses of his mighty brain, and hastened on to the next place of interest before his companions had gained their breath sufficiently to regard with intelligent interest the objects he had already left behind. In Paris, on the occasion of one of his flying visits into a hospital, he was present at an operation, unknown to the surgeon, in which chloroform was used not only as a preventive ot pain, but also for its remedial effect; after the operation the surgeon addressed his students upon the subject of chloroform, and Simpson had the pleasure of listening to a hearty eulogy of it. When', at the end, he handed in his card, the operator's delight was genuine and effusive, and the students enthusiastically appreciated the somewhat dramatic scene. On such occasions when he had to submit to the embraces of delighted foreign scientists, the exuberant manner in which they kissed him was not to his liking; even the remote strain of French blood in his own veins did not help him to enjoy the Continental mode of salutation. All over Europe his name was honoured and revered. It is said that when in later years an Edinburgh citizen was presented at the Court of Denmark the King remarked, "You come from Edinburgh? Ah! Sir Simpson was of Edinburgh!"

The last trip to the Continent, indeed his last real holiday, was taken in 1868, when he ran over to Rome. So public was the life he led, such matters of interest to his fellow-countrymen were his comings and goings, that the Scotsman newspaper chronicled his doings, relating the sights and places of interest which he visited, and noting that his professional services were taken advantage of by many Roman citizens during the few days that he was there; and that if time had permitted a public reception would have been given to him. In all his foreign trips his object was to learn, not to teach; he followed Sir Isaac Newton's advice to Ashton, and let his discourse be more in queries than in assertions or disputings. He took care neither to seem much wiser nor much more ignorant than his company.

Sometimes feeling the need of rest himself he would take one or perhaps three days for a rapid run to the Lakes, or would spend another in the country unearthing some antiquarian object. It was always a pleasures to him to visit Bathgate, where his uncle and friend Alexander had latterly resigned the baker's business and taken up the role of banker. One of his favourite resorts was a small house called Viewbank which he had taken, situated on the shores of the Firth of Forth. Here he was close to the fishing village of Newhaven ; the fisher folks—the men and the picturesquely attired "fish-wives" — a sturdy and original set of people, were a great interest to him. They knew him well both as an occasional visitor and as the good physician.

One of his letters written in 1856 gives an indication of the wide area over which his services were requisitioned and rendered.

"Sunday.

"I write this at Viewbank, which is very pretty this afternoon, but where I have not been for a week or more. This year I have not yet had one single holiday, and scarcely expect one now. I have had many long runs during the past few months. I have been often up in England, professionally, during the summer 5 once as far as Brighton seeing a consumptive case; once at Scarboro' where^my wife went with me; once or twice in London where I saw the Queen; once at Ambleside. I long and weary for a real jaunt without a sick patient lying at the end of it. And I had a great fancy to run from Manchester to Douglas and send all the patients far enough ; I have been too hard worked to write, but I must write one or two papers now. Queen Street has been a little hotel during the summer—always some sick lady or another sleeping in it, sometimes several at night."

Even on these professional journeys he found time to examine objects of interest in the neighbourhood ; or if he was unable to leave the immediate proximity of his patient, he brought pen and paper to the bedside and worked while he waited; thus he economised time as he advised his students always to do. It is doubtful if any one less great than Simpson would have ever been allowed to labour thus by a sufferer's bedside ; indeed even he was not always permitted to do so. It is recorded that, at least, one lady rose hastily and seized his pen so that he was obliged to desist.

The striking form with which Nature had endowed him, became more remarkable when affected by years, work, and domestic afflictions. Though of medium height his presence, even beside typically large-built and large-boned fellow-countrymen, was never insignificant. His features, overhung by his massive forehead, surrounded by the long and thick hair, spoke his character. Firm, concentrated mouth and piercing eyes, when his mind was fixed on a scientific or practical object. Asoft, womanly tenderness about the lips, and a genial, sympathetic emotion in his deep-set eyes when aroused by an object of pity or pleasure. His hand was "broad and powerful, but the fingers were pointed and specially sensitive touch." To see him was to see one of the sights of the modern Athens. His features are familiar to us to-day as one of the ring of brilliant, intellectual faces forming a frame to the picture of Queen Victoria in this the year of her Diamond Jubilee—a year of triumphant retrospection, unprecedented in the history of nations.

It was impossible that a man holding Simpson's position, engaged in his work, and possessed of distinct fighting characteristics, should not make enemies. He could say, as Jenner said before him, "As for fame, what is it? A gilded butt for ever pierced by the arrows of malignancy. The name of John Hunter stamps this observation with the signature of truth."

The arrows of malignancy did not hurt Simpson. He was very little, if at all, affected by them ; but he paid, perhaps, more attention to them than we might have expected him to pay ; certainly more than they deserved. His love of the fray led him oftentimes to answer what had better have been left unnoticed, and dragged him into prolonged, sometimes bitter, and, it is to be regretted, often unworthy, controversies. There was so much valuable work to be done, and his efforts were always so fruitful in result that we grudge the time spent in these squabbles ; there arises an instinctive feeling that had he devoted the energy wasted in these contests to furthering some single: branch of science, he would have made distinct advances therein. There was nothing superficial about his work; whatever the object it was thoroughly entered into; his writings convey to one a sense of the power he had of seeing all round and through a question, and of weighing and judging evidence. There was likewise no scamping in his mode of treating his opponents in these squabbles; he used his weapons fearlessly and administered many a trouncing to weak opponents.

It was a time of upheaval in things medical. The microscope and stethoscope had been introduced into the science and practice of the healing art. Scientific experiment and research were beginning to lay the foundations of rational medicine and surgery. Edinburgh was in the front rank of modern progress, as she has ever been. Men like Simpson, Syme, Miller, Alison, and Christison, were not likely to lag behind. But, unfortunately, it was equally unlikely that such great minds could all think alike in matters concerning the principles of the science and art which they taught and practised. Thus it happened that the Edinburgh School became notorious for its internal quarrels, and in these Simpson was, as a rule, to be found busy.

Quite apart from these professional differences were^ the disputes arising from attacks made upon Simpson'* by professional brethren and laymen, who accused ^ him of wrong treatment or neglect of patients. His -fame endowed him with almost superhuman power: in the minds of patients and their friends. When all other means had failed Simpson was hastened to as a last hut sure resource ; bitter the disappointment, bitter was the grief, and also sometimes bitter the things said of him when the anxious friends of a sufferer found that even Simpson's powers of healing were limited. These attacks were some of the "arrows of malignancy," which naturally fell about the over-busy man. He thought it necessary to stop, pick up these arrows, and challenge the assailants ; we may regret that he stooped so often to this action, but we feel that it sprang as much from the love of truth and justice as from the dictates of a disposition inclined towards quarrel.

It is impossible to pass over the great controversy which raged in Edinburgh about 1850 on the merits of homoeopathy, in which Simpson, of course, took a leading part. About the beginning of the century the practice of medicine by the apothecaries, as the general practitioners were then called, consisted in the most unscientific, nay, haphazard administration of drugs in large quantities and combinations. It was an age of drugging doctors, and the custom had become so thoroughly established that it is doubtful whether any less completely opposite system than that introduced by Hahnemann would have convinced the public that after all so many drugs were not required, nor such large quantities of them. Homoeopathic practice was founded on facts improperly interpreted, and laid down for general use a procedure that was applicable in only a limited number of cases. As Dr. Lauder Brunton has recently pointed out, it is in many instances only a method of faith-cure, and as such has its value. The success which its practitioners certainly obtained in many cases where the ordinary wholesale drugging of the Jay had proved futile, at once made men pause ere allowing their bodies to be made receptacles for the complicated preparations of the physician. In Edinburgh at this time the influence of homoeopathy had been felt. Alison, a physician of great renown, was to the end a pronounced polypharmacist, and was said scarcely ever to leave a patient without a new bottle or prescription. Graham, another university professor, was also a thorough-going old school therapeutist. On the other hand, Syme treated all medicine except rhubarb and soda with disdain; and Henderson, the professor of Pathology, and also a practising physician, after professing to consider no medicine of very much value, became a pronounced sceptic, and finally horrified his colleagues by making trials of homoeopathy, and gradually becoming enamoured of it until he confessed himself a full follower of Hahnemann's doctrines. Christison was leading the school which urged that the action of medicines should be studied experimentally if their administration was to ^e founded on scientific grounds. The behaviour ]>oi Henderson, who so greatly owed his position as professor to Simpson, stirred the wrath of the latter. He examined and condemned the irrational system of Hahnemann, and threw himself into an attitude of strong opposition. Syme and Christison ably seconded him in strong public action. Henderson was obliged to resign his chair owing to " loss of health." Homoeopathy was thoroughly crushed in Edinburgh. The contest between the old system of drugging with large complicated doses of powerful remedies, and the new one of giving on principle infinitesimal doses of the same medicines, served a good purpose. It gave an opportunity for establishing rational therapeutics, a science which is making daily progress, and in the presence of which neither the old system nor homoeopathy can stand.

About this same period mesmerism was again coming to the front, this time cloaked as a science termed electro-biology. Simpson acknowledged that there was a great deal in mesmerism demanding scientific investigation ; but with his reasoning powers he could not realise the existence of the mystically-termed higher phenomena of animal magnetism, egy lucidity, transference of the senses, and, above all, clairvoyance. It happened that a professional mesmerist gave a performance in Edinburgh ; learning that the " professor's " daughter was stated to be able to read anything written on paper, or to divine N any object enclosed in a sealed box while under her father's mesmeric power, Simpson attended the performance. He took with him a specially-prepared test—a sealed box with certain unknown contents; this he presented at a suitable opportunity. Against their own wishes, but on the insistence of the audience, the performers made an attempt by their methods to detect the nature of the contents of this test-box. They pronounced it to be money; on opening it millet seed was found, and a piece of paper, on which was written, "humbug."

An accusation, couched in bitter terms, that Simpson was really a supporter of mesmerism as it was then . known, was published in one of the leading professional journals in London. He indignantly repudiated the suggestion and proposed to settle the matter finally by a simple expedient. He offered to place five sealed boxes each containing a line from Shakspeare written by himself on paper, in the hands of the editor of the journal who had permitted the attack to appear in his columns. To any clairvoyant who read these lines according to the professed method, and to the satisfaction of a committee of eminent medical men, he promised the sum of five hundred pounds. The offer, however, was not acceptedI

The brilliant attainments of many of its teachers at this period not only placed the Edinburgh school at the head of the British schools of medicine, but also led to tempting offers being made to individual professors by rival schools anxious to secure their services.

London was a much more lucrative field for practice than the Scots metropolis, and several of the most eminent Edinburgh men had from time to time yielded to the temptation to migrate southwards. Indeed, London as a medical school owes a great deal to the Scotsmen whom she imported. Liston had. left for London in 1834, and Syme followed, for a brief period, on Liston's death. In 1848 a strong effort was made to secure Simpson as a lecturer on midwifery at St. Bartholomew's Hospital; without any hesitation he decided to remain in the city where he had fought his way to fame, and where he enjoyed popularity, and a practice sufficiently lucrative to satisfy the most ambitious man. Every patriotic Scot applauded the decision.

During these years of fame and prosperity Simpson concerned himself in schemes for the improvement of the surroundings of the working classes, and helped with speech and purse those who worked among the poor. He strongly supported the establishment of improved dwellings for workpeople and gave much attention to the subject of Cottage Hospitals. He did not neglect the poor amongst whom he had laboured in his early days. He loved old Edinburgh, and the poor inhabitants of it were near his heart. "The Professor " was known in many a "wynd" and "stair," where his services were rendered willingly and without reward.


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