The news of ether spread rapidly and encouraged Edinburgh gynaecologist James Simpson to investigate other vapors that might also have anesthetic properties. Professor Miller, one of Simpson's colleagues, describes how the anesthetic properties of chloroform were discovered:(8)
"Late one evening - it was the 4th of November 1847 - on returning home after a very weary day's work, Dr Simpson, with his two friends and assistants, Drs Keith and Duncan, sat down to their somewhat hazardous work in Dr Simpson's dining room. Having inhaled several substances, but without much effect, it occurred to Dr Simpson to try a ponderous material which he had formerly set aside on a lumber table, and which on account of its great weight, he had hitherto regarded as of no likelihood whatever. That happened to be a small bottle of chloroform. It was searched for and recovered from beneath a heap of waste paper. And with each tumbler newly charged the inhalers resumed their vocation. Immediately an unwanted hilarity seized the party; they became bright-eyed, very happy and very loquacious - expatiating on the delicious aroma of the new fluid ...a moment more and then all was quiet - and then crash. The inhaling party slipped off their chairs and flopped onto the floor unconscious."
A colleague discovers a prostrate Dr Simpson after an inhaling session. Simpson s discovery of the anesthetic properties of chloroform helped revolutionize surgery and removed the fear of pain and trauma.
Within a fortnight Simpson had administered chloroform to at least 50 of his patients with excellent results.
Nitrous oxide, and to a lesser extent ether, are still important drugs, although chloroform has since been replaced by safer alternatives. Nevertheless, chloroform did show what sort of chemical substances would be most likely to have anesthetic properties. Chemically, chloroform is known as an halogenated hydrocarbon, and the medical literature contains examples of other substances in this category that were used as anesthetics but subsequently discarded as being too toxic.(32) Currently it is halothane, another halogenated hydrocarbon, that is widely used for major surgery.
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