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Sir James Young Simpson
Chapter XII.  Failing Health—Death


Poetical instincts—Religious views—Religious and emotional influences in his life—Doubts—Revivalism—Health—Overwork tells—Bed —Gradual failure—Death on May 6, 1870—Grave offered in Westminster Abboy—Buried at Warriston—Obituary notices— Bust in the Abbey—His greatness.

THE emotional part of Sir James Simpson's nature found some small expression in versifying both, as we have seen, in early years and in later days. We know that he was a close student of Shakspeare, but Miss Simpson states that her father probably never entered a theatre, so that he can never have seen a representation. He was familiar with modern poets, especially with Burns. It is related that he once tested a lady friend's insight into the vernacular by quoting from memory for explanation the following lines from the national bard :—

Baudrons sit by the ingle-neuk,
An' wi' her loof her face she's washin',
Willie's wife is nae sae trig,
She dichts her grunzie wi' a hooschen.

His own verses were neither better nor worse than those written by other men whose abilities have led them to excel in more practical pursuits. In youth they celebrated student life, or were, as usual, dedicated to Celia's eyebrows; in mature life they were of a more serious, and latterly of a strong religious description. At all times he delighted in writing little doggerel verses to his children or friends; valueless as such efforts are, they served a useful purpose; their composition was a recreation and pleasant relief to his over-taxed brain, while it was an amusement to him to watch their effect upon the recipients, and perhaps to receive a reply clothed also in the garb of rhyme.

Sir James's example so influenced the people amongst whom he lived that it is impossible to omit reference to his attitude throughout life towards religion and an account of what is one of the most interesting phases in his history. Up to Christmas, 1861, he had been, in the eyes of the religious public, an ordinary citizen ; as regular in church-going as his professional engagements permitted ; thoroughly interested in Church affairs, and a strong supporter of his own Church; possessing to the full the national characteristic of intimate acquaintance with the letter of the Old and New Testaments; and something of a theologian as well, as his answer to the religious objections to anaesthesia showed. At that period, to the delight of many, and the genuine astonishment of others among his fellow-citizens, he became a leading spirit in the strong Evangelical movement which was then spreading through the country. "Simpson is converted," cried the enthusiastic revivalist. w Simpson is converted now," laughed those who had opposed every action of his. "If Professor Simpson is converted, it is time some of the rest of us were seeing if we do not need to be converted," wisely answered one of his friends. In the ordinary sense of the word Simpson was not converted. Had he passed away without developing this latter-day Evangelical enthusiasm, all sects would still have united in thankfulness that such a man had lived. Why this religious revival during the sixties affected him as it did becomes evident in looking at the religious, moral, and emotional influences which affected him throughout his career.

The simple-minded, devout mother, strong in faith and strong in works, who passed out of his life when he was but nine years old, left a vivid impression on the boy's mind. In after years he would call up the picture of the good woman retiring from the shop and the worries and troubles of daily life into which she had so vigorously thrown herself and so bravely faced even with failing health, into the quiet little room behind, to kneel down in prayer ; and would describe how at other times she went about her work chanting to herself one of the old Scots metrical psalms:

"Jehovah hear thee in the day, when trouble He did nend
And let the name of Jacob's God thee from all ill defend.
Let Him remember all thy gifts, accept thy sacrifice,
Grant thee thine heart's wish, and fulfil thy thoughts and counsel wise."

He used to relate one memory of her, touching in its simplicity: how one day he entered the house with a big hole in his stocking which she perceived and drew him on to her knee to darn. As she pulled the repaired garment on she said, "My Jamie, when your mother's away, you will mind that she was a grand darner." He remembered the words as if they had been spoken but yesterday, and subsequently offered to a lady who had established a girls' Industrial School in his native village a prize for the best darning.

The simple faith which beat in the life of the Bathgate baker's household was ingrained into James Simpson ; he went forth into the world full of it, and full of the determination that by his fruits he should be known.

The tender, loving care for his welfare of his sisters and brothers, particularly of Sandy, who never faltered in his inspired belief in James's great future, kept alive in Simpson something of his mother's affectionate nature, and kindled the sympathies and emotions which bulked so large in his character. His goodness was displayed in his kindly treatment of the poor, who formed at first the whole and afterwards no small part of his patients. When name and fame and bread were his, he did not turn his back on the poor, but as we have seen, ever placed his skill at their disposal for no reward, as readily as he yielded it to the greatest in the land. As in his daily practice, so in his greatest professional efforts, the revelation of chloroform, the fight for anaesthesia, the introduction of acupressure, the crusade against hospitalism, one thought breathed through his work—that he might do something to better the condition of suffering humanity. He never attempted to keep discoveries in his own hands, to profit by the monopoly, but scattered wide the knowledge which had come to him that it might benefit mankind and grow stronger and wider in the hands of other workers.

In his domestic life he was a tender, loving, and companionable husband and father, a charming host, and a warm-hearted friend. "In this Edinburgh of ours," says a recent writer, "there are familiar feces whose expression changes greatly at the mention of his name; there are men whose speech from formal and precise turns headlong and extravagant, as if it came from a new and inspired vocabulary." In Scotland his personal influence was immense. As was afterwards written of him, "Great in his art, and peerless in resource, yet greater was he in his own great soul ; " such a man stood in no need of the violent revolution in mode of life implied in conversion. A gradual process of development led to his feeling that although to labour was to pray, there was a need for more attention to the spiritual, even in his self-sacrificing life.

There is evidence that during a brief period of his career Simpson became affected by speculative doubts; indeed it would have been surprising if his mind had not been affected by some of the new schools of thought which sprang up in the footsteps of Charles Darwin, and appeared for a time to threaten a mortal antagonism to all that was dear to orthodox Christians. But these did not influence him long ; true to his character he examined every new thought and finding it wanting remained firm in his old and tried faith, and ranged himself on the side of those who perceived nothing seriously incompatible between religion and modern science.

In his bearing, when the angel of sorrow afflicted his household with no unsparing hand, we find him always a religious-minded man. The first trial was the loss of the eldest child, his daughter Maggie, in 1844. Another daughter, Mary, was lost in early infancy. In 1848 his friend of boyhood and student days, Professor John Reid, was smitten with a painful malady and died after a prolonged period of suffering during which, knowing that the shadow of death was hanging over him, he devoted himself in retirement to religious thoughts. Experiences such as these made Simpson pause and question himself. Brimful of life and vigour, however much he came in contact with death in his professional rounds, the sight of it in his own inner circle powerfully stirred his emotional nature. His friend the Rev. Dr. Duns noticed in him after these sad events a gradually increasing earnestness in his spiritual life, and a closer inquiry into the meanings of the Scriptures. He sought out the company, and placed himself under the influence of those among his patients whom he knew to possess fervid religious temperaments. The last mental stumbling-block was the question of prayer; he had seriously doubted in examining the question intellectually that human prayer could influence the purpose of the Deity. It is difficult, if not presumptuous, to inquire into the process whereby, under the guidance of spiritually minded friends, his doubts were satisfied.

" . . . One indeed I knew
In many a subtle question versed."

 • • • • •

"He fought his doubts and gathered strength,
He would not make his judgment blind,
He faced the spectres of the mind,
And laid them—thus he came at length"

 * * * * *

"To find a stronger faith his own."

The simple earnest faith of his fathers in which he had commenced life, ran all through his mature years and prompted his strong purposeful energies. After the combat with the only seriously perplexing doubt he re-embraced his faith with the simplicity of a child and the strength of a giant. For one accustomed to apply to every subject taken in hand the rigid process of careful scientific investigation, it required no small effort to lay aside his usual methods and suffer himself to be led wholly by faith.

It was impossible for Simpson to enter into any movement without taking a prominent part in it. That Christmas Day on which all doubts left him was followed by days of extraordinarily zealous work, such as would have been expected of him after he had convinced himself that he had a mission to spread abroad this, the latest, and, in his opinion, the greatest, of his discoveries. He plunged at once into the midst of Evangelical societies, missions, and prayer-meetings, amongst the upper and lower classes of Edinburgh, and made excursions into the mining districts of his native county to deliver addresses. He interested himself in the education of theological students, and in foreign missions, and added to his literary work the writing of religious addresses, tracts and hymns. His example had a powerful influence in Edinburgh. It is said that he frequently addressed on a Sunday evening Evangelical assemblies of two thousand persons. The news of his so-called conversion was gleefully spread by well-meaning folks, who had given credence to statements published by his enemies, and imagined that here was a bad if a great man turned aside from the broad to the narrow path. This enthusiastic revival movement died down in time, and Simpson returned to his ordinary everyday life.

More sorrow soon fell to his lot. In 1862 his fifth child, James, who had always been an invalid, was taken from him at the age of fifteen. In 1866 the sad death of Dr. David Simpson, the eldest son, which has already been referred to, was followed in about a month's time by that of the eldest surviving daughter, Jessie, at the age of seventeen. The death of James, a sweet-natured child, stimulated him in the revival work. Pious friends had surrounded the little sufferer and led him to add his innocent influence in exciting his father's religious emotions.

There is reason to believe that Simpson perceived much insincerity in the revival movement, and attempted to dissociate himself from active participation in it, on account of finding it impossible to work in harmony with some who, though loud in profession, flagrantly failed in practice.

The Subject of Simpson's health has been little referred to in these pages, because throughout his life he paid little attention to it. The chief remedy for the feeling of indisposition was change of work. He found it impossible to be idle, and sought as recreation occupations such as archaeological research, or a scamper round foreign hospitals, which to most people would have savoured more of labour. The part of his body which was most worked, his nervous system, was naturally the one which most often troubled him with disorder; like other great men of high mental development he suffered from time to time with severe attacks of megrim, which necessitated a few hours of rest. The blood-poisoning, for which he availed himself of Professor Syme's services, was soon recovered from with prompt treatment ending in a foreign tour ; but after it little illnesses became more frequent, and he was perforce occasionally confined to the house. During these times he busied himself, for the sake of occupation and to distract his attention from his sufferings, in professional reading or the preparation of literary papers. Rheumatic troubles became frequent, and soon after his eldest son's death he had to run over to the Isle of Man to free himself from a severe attack of sciatica.

Long, weary nights spent at the bedside of patients or in tiresome railway journeys, and exposure to all varieties of weather, had a serious effect upon him. Travelling was slow, according to modern ideas, and long waits at wayside stations in winter-time helped to play havoc with his constitution. He was well known to the railway officials in Scotland. The figure of the great Edinburgh professor was familiar at many a station, striding up and down the platform with the stationmaster, chaffing the porter, or cheerily chatting to the driver and stoker leaning out of the engine. After his death many of these men would proudly produce little mementoes of their services to him, which he never forgot to send.

The little rest house, Viewbank, on the Forth, had to be more frequently sought refuge in, if only to get away from the harassing night-bell and secure a full night's sleep. In the last year or two of his existence he found the work of his practice and chair hard to carry on, not because of any defined illness, but on account of the loss of that buoyant elasticity of constitution which had enabled him to bear without apparent effort or injury the fatigue which would have been sufficient to prostrate more than one ordinary man. He had early trained himself to do with a minimum of sleep ; to snatch what he could and when he could, if it were only on a sofa, a bare board, or in one of the comfortless railway carriages of the day. He took full advantage during his career of the modern facilities for travelling which he had seen introduced and developed. Many a night was spent in the train, going to or returning from a far-distant patient, or after a combined professional and archaeological excursion ; the next morning would find him busy in his usual routine. On the day after receiving the degree of D.C.L. at Oxford in 1866, he started for Devizes, which was reached the same evening ; here he had a hasty meal and drove on to Avebury to see the standing stones there. He returned at midnight, and at five o'clock next morning set off for Stonehenge, a place he had long desired to see, thoroughly examined the remarkable remains, and on his return took train to Bath, where he found time to examine more antiquities. At midnight a telegram reached him calling him professionally to Northumberland. He snatched a few hours' sleep, and taking the four a.m. train to London set out for Northumberland, where he saw his patient, and then proceeded to Edinburgh. This is no solitary instance of his journeyings, but an example of many.

When the year 1870 had been entered upon, he awoke to the fact that his flesh was too weak for his eager spirit ; despite this, he held on his course, and worked without ceasing, never refusing an urgent call, although he now suffered from angina pectoris. On February 12th he hastened to London to give evidence in a notorious divorce case. He arrived only to find that the trial had been postponed for four days. He returned to Edinburgh on the 14th, spent the next day in professional visits in the country, and arrived again in London in time to appear in the witness-box on the 16th, although chilled to the bone by the coldness of the long journey. On the following day he stopped at York on his way home, dined, with Lord Houghton, and visited, at x 1 p.m., his friend Dr. Williams, in Micklegate. During the remainder of the journey from York to Edinburgh he suffered severely, and " was glad to rest for awhile upon the floor of the railway carriage."

A few days after this last run to London he was summoned to see a patient in Perth, but was this time so fatigued by the effort, that after his return on February 25th he was obliged to take to bed. The news sped to all quarters of the globe that Simpson was gravely ill, for nothing but grave illness could compel that vigorous man to completely lay down his work.

His symptoms improved at first under appropriate treatment sufficiently to allow him to be placed on a bed in the drawing-room; and he even once more took up his favourite archaeology, revising some of his work in that subject. Patients also were not to be denied; many were seen and prescribed for in his sick room, some even being carried up to his presence. But the fatal disease regained ascendancy, and the fact became apparent to all, not excepting himself, that the last chapter of the closely written book of his life had been entered upon. Towards the end of March, by his own request, his eldest surviving son was telegraphed for to be near him, and he wrote a touching letter to his youngest son, then a student in Geneva, encouraging him in his studies, asking him to look for cup-markings cut in the curious islet rock in Lake Geneva, and ending with an expression of his feeling of impending death, for which he felt perfectly and happily prepared. In these last days he loved to have his nearest and dearest around him ; Lady Simpson and others read to him, and his daughter tells us how she daily prepared her school lessons in the sick room with his help ; to the last he interested himself in the work of his relations and friends. He answered the attack of Bigelow, of Boston, conscious that it was his last effort on behalf of chloroform, and wrote to all his old opponents asking their forgiveness if at any time words of his had wounded their feelings. He might well have spared himself the regrets—such as they were—which troubled him. "I would have liked to have completed hospitalism," he said, "but I hope some good man will take it up." On another occasion he asked, "How old am I? Fifty-nine? Well, I have done some work. I wish I had been busier."

He expressed a desire that his nephew should succeed him in the Chair of Midwifery—he would, he thought, help to perpetuate his treatment.

There was much communing with himself on his future, and all his sayings on the subject breathed the simple faith first inculcated in him in the Bathgate cottage. His great sufferings, sometimes allayed by opiates and his own chloroform, were bravely borne, but the days dragged sadly on. On the evening of May 5th Sandy took his place at his side, and the last conscious moments of the great physician were spent with his head in the arms of him who had helped and guided him through the difficult days of his career. At sunset on May 6th he passed peacefully away.

The extent of the feeling evoked by the tidings ot his death was represented in Mr. Gladstone's remark that it was a grievous loss to the nation and was truly a national concern. There was a universally expressed opinion that he merited without a shadow of doubt the rare national honour of public interment in Westminster Abbey. A committee was formed out of the leading medical men in London to carry out this suggestion. Their task was light, for the Dean acceded to the request at once. Much as "his family and the Scots people valued this tribute to his greatness, they decided otherwise. Scotland has no counterpart of Westminster in which to lay to rest those whom she feels to have been her greatest; but Edinburgh felt that she could not part with him who in life had been her possession and her pride. He had long ago chosen a piece of ground in the Warriston cemetery, and Lady Simpson decided, to the gratification of his fellow-citizens, that he should be buried there beside the five children who had preceded him. His resting place was well chosen ; it nestled into the side of the beautiful city, and from it could be viewed some of the chief objects of the scene he knew so well—on the south the stately rock crowned with the ancient castle, and the towering flats of the old town stretching away to Arthur's Seat; on the north the long stretch of the Firth of Forth and in the distance on the one hand the Ochills; on the other the Bass Rock.

The funeral was one of the most remarkable ever witnessed in Scotland. It took place on May 13th in the presence of a crowd estimated to consist of thirty thousand persons. The hearse was followed by a representative procession comprising close upon two thousand persons. His own relatives assembled at 52, Queen Street, the general public and the Town Council in the Free Church of St. Luke, and the representatives of the University, the Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons, and the Royal Society and many other public bodies, in the Hall of the College of Physicians. At each of these meeting-places religious services were held. The whole city ceased to labour that afternoon in order to pay the last tribute to its dearly loved professor. The poor mourned in the crowd as deeply and genuinely as those with whom he had been closely associated in life mourned as they followed his remains in the procession. Every mourner grieved from a sense of personal loss, so deeply had his influence sunk down into the hearts of the people.

The companion of his troubles and his triumphs, who had bravely joined him to help him to the fame he strove after, was soon laid beside him. Lady Simpson died on June 17th of the same year.

But two notes were struck in the countless obituary notices and letters of condolence which appeared from far and near — those of appreciation of his great nature, and sorrow for the terrible loss sustained by science and humanity. The Queen caused the Duke of Argyle to express to the family her own personal sorrow at the loss of "so great and good a man." A largely attended meeting was held in Washington to express the feeling of his own profession in the United States, at which Dr. Storer moved, "that in Dr. Simpson, American physicians recognise not merely an eminent and learned Scots practitioner, but a philanthropist whose love encircled the world; a discoverer who sought and found for suffering humanity in its sorest need a foretaste of the peace of heaven, and a devoted disciple of the only true physician, our Saviour Jesus Christ."

The following original verses from the pen of a well-known scholar in the profession, were given prominence in the columns of the Lancet:—

PROMETHEUS.
(Our lamented Sir James Simpson was the subject of angina pectoris.)

"Alas! alas! pain, pain, ever forever!" So groaned upon his rock that Titan good Who by his brave and loving hardihood Was to weak man of priceless boons the giver, Which e'en the supreme tyrant could not sever From us, once given ; we own him in our food And in our blazing hearth's beatitude; Yet still his cry was "Pain, ever forever!"

Shall we a later, harder doom rehearse? One came whose art men's dread of art repressed: Mangled and writhing limb he lulled to rest, And stingless left the old Semitic curse ; Him, too, for these blest gifts did Zeus amerce? He, too, had vultures tearing at his breast.

Hush, Pagan plaints! our Titan is unbound; The cruel beak and talons scared away ; As once upon his mother's lap he lay So rests his head august on holy ground 5 Spells stronger than his own his pangs have found ; He hears no clamour of polemic fray, Nor recks he what unthankful men may say ; Nothing can vex him in that peace profound.

And where his loving soul, his genius bold ? In slumber ? or already sent abroad On angels' wings and works, as some men hold? Or waiting Evolution's change, unawed? All is a mystery, as Saint Paul has told, Saying, " Your life is hid with Christ in God."

In a peaceful corner of the St. Andrew Chapel in Westminster Abbey, alongside memorials of Sir Humphry Davy and a few other scientists of note, stands a speaking image in marble—perhaps the most expressive representation that exists—of this wonderful man,

"To whose genius and benevolence The world owes the blessings derived From the use of chloroform for The relief of suffering. Laus Deo."

Mr. Jonathan Hutchinson, when writing to the medical journals in support of the proposal to secure Simpson's burial in Westminster Abbey, foretold that his reputation would ripen with years, that jealousies would be forgotten, and antagonism would be buried. Twenty-seven years have elapsed since then, and few remain with whom he came in conflict; those who do remain exchanged, along with others of his opponents, friendly words of reconciliation in the end, and took the hand which he held out from his deathbed. As a man, Simpson had his faults; but they were exaggerated in his lifetime by some, just as his capabilities and achievements were magnified by 219 those who worshipped him as inspired. He was full of sympathy for mankind, benevolent and honest to a fault, and forbearing to his enemies. He rushed eagerly into the combat and oftentimes wounded sorely, and perhaps unnecessarily. His genius was essentially a reforming genius, and impelled him to fight for his ends, for genius is always the "master of man." We can forgive him if sometimes it caused him to fight too vigorously, where the heart of a man of mere talent might have failed and lost. His special charms were excelled only by his marvellous energy, his prodigious memory, and his keenness of insight; but he was regrettably inattentive to the details of ordinary everyday life and practice.

He approached the study of medicine when the darkness of the Middle Ages was still upon it, and was one of the first to point out that although many diseases appeared incurable, they were nevertheless preventable. Although no brilliant operator himself, he so transformed the surgical theatre by his revelation of the power of chloroform, and by his powerful advocacy of the use of anaesthetics, that pain was shut out and vast scientific possibilities opened up ; many of which have been brilliantly realised by subsequent workers. He devoted himself specially to the despised obstetric art, fighting for what he recognised as the most lowly and neglected branch of his profession, ranging his powerful forces on the side of the weak, and left it the most nearly perfect of medical sciences.

He was enthusiastic in his belief in progress, and in the power of steady, honest work to effect great ends. With the exception of the time of that temporary burst into revivalism in 1861, his motto throughout life might very well have been laborure est orare. He was no believer in speculations, but curiously enough kept for recreation only the subject of archaeology, in which he entered into many intricate speculative studies. In his professional work he avoided speculation, and never adopted a theory which was not built upon firm fact.

If we are asked for what we are most to honour Simpson, we answer, not so much for the discoveries he made, not for the instruments he invented, not for his exposure of numerous evils, not for the introduction of reforms, not for any particular contribution to science, literature, or archaeology; but rather for the inspiring life of the man looked at both in outline and in detail. He was guided by high ideals, and a joyous unhesitating belief that all good things were possible—that right must prevail. He was stimulated by a genius which, as has been pointed out, gave him the energy to fight for his ends with herculean strength. The fact that chloroform was by his efforts alone accepted as the anaesthetic, and ether, which from the first was generally thought to be safer in ordinary hands, was deliberately put on one side practically all over the world, testified to his forcible and convincing method, and to his power of making others see as he saw. As a man of science alone, as a philanthropist alone, as a worker alone, as a reformer alone, he was great. But although to the popular mind he is known chiefly because of his introduction of chloroform, medical history will record him as greater because of his reforming genius, and will point to the fight for anaesthesia, and his crusade against hospitalism as the best of all that he accomplished or initiated. And he who, while making allowances for the weaknesses of human nature which were Simpson's, studies the life which was brought all too soon to a close, will recognise the great spirit which breathed through all his life.

The End


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