James Simpson was the first Scottish Doctor and Professor to be knighted for his medical service and his pioneering use of chloroform in gynaecology. By using chloroform to induce a deep sleep, he was able to alleviate much of the pain and suffering that his patients suffered during child-birth.
James Young Simpson, future baronet, began his life in humble circumstances. He was born on 7 June 1811, in Bathgate Village, Linlithgow, Scotland, as the seventh son of a poor baker. A promising and practical lad from the start, he was excellent in studies as well as athletics, and responsible when it came to lending a hand in the family business. Recognizing his brilliance, his parents, although they could ill-afford it, sent him at the age of 14, to be educated further at the Edinburgh University.
At Edinburgh University
Simpson studied in the Arts Section for two years, before switching to the Medical department. Immediately after he received his degree as a doctor, he was, on the basis of his brilliant thesis 'Death from Inflammation', offered an assistantship post under Dr. John Thomson, the Professor of Pathology at the University. He worked under Dr. Thomson for a year, sometimes even spelling him in the Lecture Hall, and this experience proved invaluable for him in his future career. Alongside Pathology, he did specialized studies in the field of Obstetrics.
By 1837, he considered himself qualified enough to apply for the Chair of Midwifery, one of the top posts at Edinburgh University. The University was quite prepared to accept him, but there was one hitch - he wasn't married and the post only went to a married man.
Conveniently enough, Simpson already had a candidate in mind for the post of his wife. Only a few years ago, he had met and become enamored with Jessie Grindlay, the daughter of a well-off Liverpool merchant. Now, he proposed to her, and they were married. They were back in Edinburgh within a month, to claim the Chair of Midwifery. They had a son, David, who also became a doctor, and a daughter named Jessie. Both children showed bright promise, but, tragically, died young
Not a brusque, detached medical man, Simpson was very concerned about the pain his patients suffered, and looked for means by which to alleviate their suffering. He heard of the American dentist Morton's successful, pain-free dental surgery, using ether, and then personally saw the effectiveness of ether in an operation conducted by the surgeon Robert Liston. However, there were certain problems with using ether in obstetrics and so, after much experimenting, he zeroed-in on chloroform.
Opposition from the Church
Astonishingly, far from crediting him for having saved countless women from avoidable pain, he was severely castigated by the Scottish Church, for interfering in the Divine Plan. That many other doctors from the previous centuries had used hypnotism and narcotics to relieve pain without censure was irrelevant to the Church. They wanted Simpson to stop - putting people to sleep artificially, they claimed, was making it easier for the Dark Powers to overwhelm them. In the case of women, it was particularly heinous and insensitive to try and save them from feeling pain. After all, wasn't it said in the Genesis - "In Sorrow thou shalt bring forth children"? He was putting a spanner in the works of the Divine Purpose when he attempted to end the sorrow.
Simpson, a sharp and logical man, retaliated by firing back another missive from the Genesis - "And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof." This silenced the critics, although they still simmered under the belief that what was sauce for Adam, the Apple-eater, was not sauce for Eve, the Apple-handler.
Most of the criticism, however, was swept aside, when Queen Victoria decided to use chloroform during giving birth to her children. What was accepted by the Queen was taken as the accepted fashion by her adoring public.
Simpson, for his persistence and his work in the medical field, became internationally renowned and received many prestigious honors and memberships to important European and American Medical Societies. He died on 6 May 1870.