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Significant Scots
Sir James Young Simpson

Sir James Young SimpsonJames 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 of Bathgate.

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 the household.

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 him.

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 producing anaesthesia.

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 theology.

A 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."

Download a biography of him by his daughter in pdf format

Sir 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., &c.

Forest Hill, October, 1897.


Archaeological Essays
By Sir James Y. Simpson in two volumes (1872) edited by John Stuart, LL.D., Secretary of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland
Volume 1  |  Volume 2

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