How Anaesthesia Defeated Religious Beliefs to Change the World for Women

Dr Roshan Radhakrishnan
Browse through your social media timeline today and invariably there seems to be posts about how religions are under threat, either by opposing religions or often one's own followers, hellbent on changing old traditions.

A strain that runs through most of those traditions - across all the main religions - is about how women need to 'know their place and endure' because God said so. 

People standing up to that concept, demanding women be treated fair, tend to be labeled many a derogatory term surprisingly, for the crime of equality. Here is the funny thing though. This is nothing new. You see, back in the 1800s, a chubby Scot faced the same problem.

How he dealt with it changed the world for women.

Anaesthetist James Simpson

Don't get fooled by the rotund figure of Dr James Simpson you see.
The guy was a major nerd, completing his doctors in medicine at the age of 21! His middle name 'Young' truly suited him as he rose the ranks to be an obstetrician.

On October 16, 1846 anaesthesia was successfully demonstrated for the first time in the world in USA using ether. Even as the medical fraternity rejoiced, James Simpson was less than impressed. His trials with ether showed side effects he did not care for, driving him to seek an alternative as he couldn't stand the pain his patients were going through.

That alternative would prove to be chloroform. Simpson and his colleague first tried chloroform on rabbits (who died!) before risking it on themselves, resulting in all the humans passing out from the drug! When they awoke the next morning, Simpson declared he had the drug that would 'turn the world upside down.' Less than a week later, Simpson helped a woman deliver her baby without pain for the first time. Within a month, he had 50 successful patients.

And that is where the problems began.

Religion stepped in to the delivery room. 

You see, a woman being pain-free during child birth was literally blasphemy! Women were meant to suffer because of Eve's original sin. Educated groups of men and even women demanded Simpson not use anaesthesia, pointing to a passage from Genesis where God talks to Eve -

“I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.”

Simpson was no atheist, mind you. He was a true practitioner of religion. It was just that his drive to make the world pain-free trumped religious ideologies. To those throwing the words of Genesis at him, James Simpson impishly pointed out that in fact, God was the first to use anaesthesia and he was just following God. Sample the quote he produced in his defense:

“So the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and closed up the place with flesh. “ 

Smart, as could be expected from a guy who was a professor at 28. But of course, mere words and pointing out flaws in passages can hardly sway the minds of those who have a religious belief fixed in their head.

And so, Simpson would continue to face resistance for allowing women to experience child birth without pain for over half a decade. Frankly, if it were 2018 you just know he would have been lampooned with Twitter memes and photoshopped images discrediting him for his 'sin'. Luckily, the 1850s were a far more normal time and we did not have Whatsapp to share comical images of him.

The Royal Thumbs Up

Simpson would continue to treat patients with the anaesthetic drug chloroform until he got the seal of approval from the most famous patient of chloroform ever - a certain Queen Victoria!

Queen Victoria was no novice to childbirth in 1853, having given birth seven times earlier but the experience of being free of pain during the delivery of Prince Leopold truly astounded her. It was administered perfectly by Dr John Snow, whose anaesthesia notes of the final moments showed that “The queen appeared very cheerful and well, expressing herself much gratified with the effects of the chloroform.”

And just like that, everything changed. Because, well, you maybe a priest or a Pope but you do not go against the Queen back then!

Queen Victoria's approval of the use of chloroform changed the world for women. 

Religious texts were put back in the prayer room and hardcore fanatics grudgingly backed down as women were allowed medication to be pain free during delivery - it was NO LONGER a sin.

When push came to shove, Simpson could have backed down. 

Doctors, priests, leaders and the public were against him. Even the women he was trying to help were against him, accusing him of being a blasphemer. If he had backed down, there would have been no harm to him. He could have led a normal life as a respected doctor. We would still be calling derogatory terms in 2018 for those demanding equality inside an operation theater for women.

But Sir James Young Simpson did not succumb to threats back in 1847. The son of the village baker who lost his mother young stood strong and kept at it. He created obstetric devices and concepts used even today. He faced strong opposition till the tide FINALLY turned.

Even today, a regal statue of Sir James Simpson labeled 'the pioneer of anaesthesia' sits in Edinburgh.
Even though the Queen of England kept a place for him at Westminster Abbey, Sir James Simpson chose to remain in Edinburgh saving lives. Even today, a regal statue of Sir James Simpson labeled 'the pioneer of anaesthesia' sits in Edinburgh.

Simpson would go on to be the first man to be knighted for 'services to medicine.' And when he passed away at the young age of 58, he was given a hero's honour, the funeral route filled with a crowd of over 1,00,000 people, grateful to this pioneer of anaesthesia and the medical field.

Sir James Simpson did not back down. 
And that is why, today in the 21st century, delivering a baby is a happy, pleasant experience for millions of women across the world.

Got some doubts or an experience to share? Type them in the comment section below.

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Let me know what you think.

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. What are you, Sir? The humor that drips from every sentence of yours hits so equally hard at the seriousness of the statements & facts that you bring forth. Yes, it's sad today that any concession or relaxation for women is seen as blasphemy. Because, WHY NOT? We've been conditioned to visualize every female as an innate super-human. And if she wants to feel as human as the men, she's seen as a sinner. Thanks to all such movies & book characters we've immortalized since generations.

    Well, I'm all thanks to this chubby Simpson who made my C-section feel so better! And by the way, I'm not sure if he's the same guy to be blamed for making things super simple for kidnappers & robbers too! :-)

  3. Very interesting. Humans have always been at it, trying to use religion to control women. Thanks to pioneer doctors like him for standing their ground!

  4. Thank goodness for Sir James Simpson. Thanks for sharing this. So many heroes go unnoticed.

  5. Such an interesting read, and very relevant to the current times too. Unfortunately so. You would thinking after all these decades of progress we would be over this by now.

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