This is the day that … Sir James Young Simpson was born, “25 miles from Edinburgh”, Scotland, in 1811.
His mother was 40 years of age at the time, and his father was the village baker. And, to establish in our minds something of the superstitions of the world into which he was born, James’ grandfather had “buried a live cow to appease the Evil Spirit which seemed likely to empty his byre (cow-shed)!” (Journal of Christian Medical Fellowship, January, 1992, page 5).
But James Simpson would be one of that century’s great scientists, who would help bridge the gap between “old wives’ tales” and responsible medical practice. His medical studies led him to the pinnacle of fame – elected “Senior President of the Royal Medical Society of Edinburgh” at the age of 24.
After studying at Edinburgh University he was appointed to the faculty as Lecturer in Obstetrics and Gynaecology. And he found time to devote to his growing interest in archaeology – even being appointed Professor of Antiquities at the Royal Scottish Academy.
But the medical field was also encountering new discoveries. The use of ether to be used in the rendering of a patient unconscious during an operation had been tried. Likewise experiments with “nitrous oxide” (laughing gas).
But there were dangers also. A Liverpool chemist suggested the use of chloroform – a substance discovered some 10 years previous. On 4 November, 1847, Simpson and two colleagues experimented with it – on themselves. Six days later he was reporting to a medical meeting the advantages of this particular anaesthetic. And to answer his critics – religious critics who thought that women must suffer pain in childbirth – he argued that even God put Adam into a “deep sleep” prior to performing His divine surgery! He popularised the use of chloroform … and tried it out on a mother in labour. “She was so excited about the less painful birth that she named her baby girl Anaesthesia!”
Simpson was a member of the Church of Scotland – living at the time of the Disruption in that denomination, he threw in his lot with the Free Church of Scotland (1843).
Conversion, however, appears to have taken place in 1861, although some writers suggest a couple of years previous. Asked at a public meeting what was his greatest discovery, Simpson unhesitatingly replied: “That I have a Saviour” (Men of Destiny, by Peter Masters, page 38).
In 1862 we find him quoted as saying in an address, “I am one of the oldest sinners and one of the youngest Christians in this room” (Journal of the Christian Medical Fellowship, January, 1992).
Sir James Young Simpson died on 6 May, 1870.
This post is based on the work of my late friend Donald Prout whose love for books and Christian history led him to collate a daily Christian calendar. I continue to work with Don’s wife, Barbara, to share his life work with the world. I have updated some of these historical posts and will hopefully draw from Don’s huge files of clippings to continue this series beyond Don’s original work. More of Don’s work can be found at www.donaldprout.com.