Sir James Young Simpson lived from 7 June 1811 to 6 May 1870. The first man ever to be knighted for his services to medicine, he is principally remembered for introducing anaesthesia to childbirth.
Simpson was born in Bathgate, West Lothian, the seventh son and eighth child of a baker. He went to the University of Edinburgh at the age of 14, and at the age of 16 began to study medicine. He studied under Robert Liston and received his licentiate of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, his authority to practice medicine, in 1830 at the age of 19. He then spent some time as a local doctor at Inverkip before returning to Edinburgh Universityin 1832 to be awarded his doctorate.
He immediately started lecturing in the pathology department, and in 1835 he was made President of the Royal Medical Society of Edinburgh. In 1839, at the age of just 28, Simpson was appointed to the chair of obstetrics at the University of Edinburgh. This had been a neglected area at the university, and Simpson became a hugely successful lecturer in the subject. His own medical practice also thrived, and women from all over Europe and beyond were soon making their way to Edinburgh to be treated by him.
Simpson's successes continued. In 1847 he was appointed one of the Queen’s physicians for Scotland; in 1849 he became President of the Royal College of Physicians; in 1852 he became President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh; in 1853 he was elected foreign member of the French Academy of Medicine; in 1866 he was knighted for his services to medicine; and in 1869 he received the freedom of the City of Edinburgh.
In 1846 Simpson heard of the use of ether as an anaesthetic during surgery and early in 1847 tried it as a means of relieving the pain of childbirth. It proved effective, but had a number of undesirable side effects, so Young started looking for an alternative. The idea of chloroform came from David Waldie, who had been a student with Young before becoming an industrial chemist. Young tested chloroform on himself and on colleagues before deciding that it was much better than ether. On 15 November 1847, he gave the first public demonstration of this new anaesthetic and a few days later published his highly influential Account of a New Anaesthetic Agent.
His ideas were attacked by some fellow doctors and by religious interests on the grounds that anaesthesia during childbirth was an act against nature, or the will of God. Despite the opposition, chloroform had replaced ether as a general anaesthetic within a very short period of time. The arguments effectively ceased when Queen Victoria's obstetrician used chloroform during the delivery of Prince Leopold in 1853.
Simpson introduced a number of other innovations into medicine and a number of medical instruments still in use are named after him. He also became an expert on the history of leprosy in Scotland.
After his death in 1870, some 1700 medical colleagues and public figures joined his funeral procession and more than 100,000 people lined the route to Edinburgh's Warriston Cemetery where he is buried. Sir James Young Simpson's memory lives on in the Simpson Memorial Maternity Pavilion in Edinburgh; a statue in the city's Princes Street Gardens; and a bust in Westminster Abbey, in London.