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Chloroform

Joseph T Clover administering chloroform.

Joseph T Clover administering chloroform.

Credits:Wellcome Library, London.

Chloroform is a colourless liquid, first discovered almost simultaneously in 1831 by scientists in three different countries: Samuel Guthrie in the United States, Eugene Soubeiran (1797-1858) in France and Justus von Liebig in Germany.

Inhaling vapours from chloroform can cause dizziness, sleepiness and unconsciousness. It was first used as an anaesthetic by the Edinburgh obstetrician James Young Simpson, experimenting on himself and some friends. He quickly realised its value for reducing the pain of childbirth.

There was some resistance to this use of anaesthesia from within the Church, which insisted the pain of childbirth was ordained by God. However, when Queen Victoria allowed John Snow to use chloroform for the birth of two of her children, in 1853 and 1857, it became a popular choice for the next 50 years.

While chloroform was certainly viewed as an important innovation for anaesthetics in surgery and childbirth, it also gained a rather more sinister reputation, becoming associated with abductions, murders, rapes and robbery. Even the medical profession was not immune from accusations of the misuse of chloroform - doctors were accused of molesting female patients who were under its influence.

Bibliography

S J Snow, Blessed Days of Anaesthesia: How Anaesthetics Changed the World (Oxford, OUP, 2008)

L Stratman, Chloroform: The Quest for Oblivion (Stroud: Sutton, 2003)

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