James Simpson

James Young Simpson

James Simpson


Sir James Young Simpson, 1st Baronet is regarded as a significant figure in the history of medicine. He is known for being the first person to demonstrate the anesthetic properties of chloroform on humans. He was an obstetrician and was particularly interested in the use of chloroform during childbirth.

Early life

James Young Simpson was born on 7 June 1811 in Bathgate, Scotland. He was the son of Mary Jervais and David Simpson. James was the youngest of 7 children. His father was the village baker. James attended the local school aged 4, he did well and impressed his family members. His father and brothers agreed to stint themselves to send him to college.

At the age of 14, James began his studies at the University of Edinburgh. He studied for an arts degree and 2 years later he began his medicine studies. He obtained his M.D. in 1832.

His skills were noticed at once and in 1835, just 3 years after obtaining his degree, he was made Senior President of the Royal Medical Society of Edinburgh.

At the tender age of 28, Simpson succeeded James Hamilton as the Professor of Medicine and Midwifery at the University of Edinburgh.


In 1846, news of the first sulphuric ether trials reached Scotland from America. Simpson was ecstatic when he heard about it. He stated that he could not think of anything but it, for it was so remarkable. Simpson conducted trials in obstetrics and advocated it’s use.

Simpson became convinced that there was an anesthetic more efficient that could be found. In order to find a chemical with an anesthetic effect, himself and his two assistants, Dr George Skene Keith and James Matthews Duncan used to test chemicals each afternoon. He came to the conclusion that chloroform would be the perfect substitute when he and his two assistants passed out after inhaling it.


Chlroform had been used by Robert Mortimer Glover in 1842 to anesthetize large animals. However, the chemical had been deemed unsafe for humans. It is purely by chance that Dr Simpson survived his chloroform test as if he had inhaled too much he would have died. On the contrary, if he had inhaled too little, he would not have passed out and chloroform would be deemed too week.

Sir James Young Simpson

James faced a lot of criticism from the church and other physicians who were unsure of the effects of the gas.Despite this, he persisted and in 1847, Dr Simpson was appointed as one of the Queen’s physicians. Queen Victoria herself made use of chloroform while giving birth to Prince Leopold. Dr Simpson received a baronetcy in 1866. Simpson went on to contribute significantly to the fields of gynecology and obstetrics.


After suffering for a few months from angina pectoris, Simpson died on 6 May 1870. He died in his Edinburgh home. His family was offered a burial spot for him in Westminster Abbey, however they declined as they wished for him to be closer to home. He was buried at Warriston Cemetery in Edinburgh.

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Written by: Justin Daines