James Young Simpson Biography (1811-1870)


Sir James Young Simpson was born at Bathgate, West Lothian, Scotland on June7, 1811; he died in London on May 6, 1870. He was one of the most prominent obstetricians of modern times. Simpson was the son of a village baker. At theage of 14, he entered Edinburgh Univeristy to study medicine, graduating in 1832. Seven years later, at the age of 29, Simpson was appointed Professor ofMidwifery (obstetrics) at Edinburgh. He soon became Scotland's leading obstetrician, acquiring a sizable practice through demonstrated ability and remarkable personality. During his lifetime, Simpson received many honors, includinga baronetcy (1866); the Freedom of the City of Edinburgh; and an honorary degree from Oxford University. Simpson is especially remembered for the wonderful influence he exerted on his patients, and for being one of the most noteworthy personalities of his time.

In November of 1847 (the same year he was appointed physician to the Queen inScotland), Simpson began to employ chloroform in obstetrics and labor, but only after a preliminary test that involved inhaling it experimentally himself, as also did his assistants Matthews Duncan and George Keith. Simpson immediately found himself embroiled with Calvinists who were opposed to the use ofany anaesthetic in childbirth. It was not until 1853, when Queen Victoria accepted the use of chloroform for the birth of her son that criticism of Simpson began to subside. In 1858, Simpson introduced iron wire sutures; between 1850 and 1864, he pioneered the use of long obstetric forceps. Other contributions in gynecology and obstetrics included the use of uterine sound (1843), the sponge tent, dilatation of the cervix uteri in diagnosis, Simpson's pains in uterine cancer (1863), and version in deformed pelves. He wrote important memoirs on fetal pathology and hermaphroditism, and made contributionsto the fields of archeology and medical history (particularly on leprosy in Scotland; 1841 to 1842). He introduced village or pavilion hospitals in Scotland.

Simpson's statistical investigations of the results of major operations, published as Hospitalism in 1869, pointed out that in more than two thousand in-hospital extremity amputations in Britain, more than 41 percent of thepatients died if their operation were done in hospitals with more than 300 beds, and that infection was by far the greatest cause of death. In the case ofanother 200 amputations done out-of-hospital in country practice, only 11 percent of the patients died. Postoperative mortality figures were also high inall of the hospitals of Europe (Paris: 60 percent, Zurich: 46 percent, Glasgow: 34 percent), and in America as well (Massachusetts General Hospital: 26 percent, Pennsylvania Hospital: 24 percent). Simpson warned "The man laid on the operating table in one of our hospitals, is exposed to more chances of death than the English soldier on the field of Waterloo." Simpson's article ledto major improvements in hospital administration, and contributed to the tearing down of many of the most offending European hospitals.

Simpson fell into dispute with Joseph Lister over the latter's ideas for reasons that are not clearly understood, but which may have something had to do with Simpson's religious beliefs.

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