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Chloroform: The Quest for Oblivion

A history of the discovery, uses and abuses of chloroform from 1831 to the present. Chloroform revolutionised surgery, but also caused hundreds of sudden deaths, the cause of which was a hotly-debated mystery in which physicians took sides and hurled insults at each other in the medical press. Opposition to its use in childbirth was stilled when Queen Victoria used it in her last two confinements. In warfare, there was an initial prejudice against using chloroform, but it soon proved to be invaluable on the battlefield.

Chloroform was not just an anaesthetic. Taken internally or as a local application it was used to relieve a wide variety of conditions, from cholera to gonorrhoea, though some of the treatments may have been worse than the complaint.

It is not surprising that criminals attempted to use it, often unsuccessfully, or that people made dubious claims to have been chloroformed when robbed under unsavoury circumstances. Women who said they had been sexually assaulted when chloroformed by doctors or dentists were usually branded as hysterical or delusional.

Chloroform had a starring role in several sensational trials, and dramatic suicides, while sheer carelessness led to many tragic accidents. In the twentieth century chloroform was gradually superseded by new anaesthetics, but it has an important role in modern medicine, where one of its many uses is to prepare samples for DNA testing.

Some illustrations that didn’t make it into the book are below.


Above is the original Junker’s inhaler. The operator pumped the hand-bellows, driving air through the chloroform in the revervoir. The second tube carried the mixture of air and chloroform to the patient. This was a very popular apparatus of the late 19th century but it had two drawbacks. The tubes looked very similar and if connected the wrong way the result would be to pump liquid chloroform into the patient. This actually happened on more than one occasion. If the apparatus was tilted a similar thing happened. Below is an ingenious modification by Frederic Hewitt, where one tube is enclosed in the other.


Precis of the chapters and a quote from each:

Chapter 1
Give Me to Drink Mandragora
The early history of pain relief up to the introduction of chloroform, including the use of ice, nerve compression, bleeding, wine, and hypnosis. Horace Wells’ failure to promote nitrous oxide leads to his suicide. Early experiments with ether.

‘Many of the primary operations would be rendered much more favourable in their results by the administration of a single glass of wine.’ John Hennen, deputy inspector of military hospitals, 1820.

Chapter 2
Sweet Whiskey
How chloroform was first made by Samuel Guthrie, an eccentric American doctor, who created it by accident when he was trying to make something else. A solution of chloroform in alcohol he called it ‘chloric ether’.

‘During the last six months a great number of persons have drunk the solution of chloric ether in my laboratory, not only very freely, but frequently to the point of intoxication . . .’ Dr. Samuel Guthrie, 1831.

Chapter 3
Adam’s Rib
The dangerous experiments carried out by Professor James Young Simpson in Edinburgh in his quest for a better anaesthetic than ether. His energetic promotion of the new discovery and how he fought opposition to anaesthesia.

‘Dr P. Is to enlighten your medical society about the ‘morality’ of the practice. I have a great itching to run up and pound him’. Professor James Young Simpson, 1847.

Chapter 4
Under the Influence
Early use of chloroform. The first death. Allegations that it caused erotic hallucinations.

‘Women . . . would undergo even the most excruciating torure, or, I believe, suffer death itself, before they would subject themselves to the shadow of a chance of exhibitions such as have been recorded.’ Dr George Gream on the subject of sexual dreams under chloroform, 1848.

Chapter 5
Her Majesty is a Model Patient
Dr John Snow, and his expertise in the use of chloroform. He studies the first reported chloroform deaths. In 1853 he gives chloroform to Queen Victoria.

‘At twenty past twelve by a clock in the Queen’s apartment, I commenced to give a little chloroform . . .’ from the notebooks of Dr Snow, 1853.

Chapter 6
The Cure for All Ills
The use of chloroform in many treatments – for venereal disease, eye disease, seasickness, as a favouring , a preservative, sedative, in local anaesthesia, in veterinary practice. Over the first ten years the medical profession is increasingly concerned at the number of deaths arising from its use as an anaesthetic.

‘Was the intensity or duration of the pain in an amputation of the leg sufficient to justify the fatal risk in such a subject? Or can it be said that insensibility was essential to the surgeon’s proceedings? Surely not.’ Editorial in the Lancet, 1854.

Chapter 7
Chloroform Goes to War
Chloroform as a battlefield anaesthetic, and early opposition to its use. The siege of Lucknow, American Civil War, and the Crimea.

‘ . . . however barbarous it may appear, the smart of the knife is a powerful stimulant: and it is much better to hear a man bawl lustily than to see him sink silently into the grave’. Dr John Hall, in charge of hospital services during the Crimean War, 1854.

Chapter 8
Murder, Mishap and Melancholy
Accidental deaths from self administration. Suicides. Claims that it had been used in robberies. Murder.

‘How can people who have been robbed be rendered instantly insensible? . . . We are still entirely sceptical, and so, we believe is every one who knows anything about the matter; from this category, we must, we fear, exclude most literary men, and the police altogether.’ Editorial in the British Medical Journal, 1871.

Chapter 9
Innocent Women
Charges of rape against doctors and dentists. The vice trade and the abduction of Eliza Armstrong by W. T. Stead.

‘ . . . administering and causing to be administered to, and taken by Eliza Armstrong, a certain noxious thing with intent to injure, aggrieve and annoy her . . .’ part of the charge against Rebecca Jarrett, accused of conspiring with W. T. Stead, 1885

Chapter 10
The Joy of Ether
Dr Benjamin Joy Jeffries promotes the reintroduction of ether in the UK. Doctors argue fiercely about the merits of ether and chloroform. The unrecognised dangers of pure chloroform.

‘For the benefit of the coroner’s jury’. Answer given to Benjamin Joy Jeffries when he asked English doctors the reason for the careful measurement of chloroform. 1872.

Chapter 11
The Crime of Adelaide Bartlett
The most celebrated chloroform crime ever. Adelaide’s husband was found dead with liquid chloroform in his stomach. Had he committed suicide, taken it by accident – or had Adelaide, who had a younger admirer she wanted to marry, murdered Edwin?

‘Chloroform handed to her: chloroform in her possession, chloroform killing the man; the bottle of chloroform disappearing . . .’ Mr Justice Wills, summing up at the trial of Adelaide Bartlett, 1886.

Chapter 12
The Sleep of Death
The crimes of H. H. Holmes and the murder of William Marsh Rice

‘I got the towel and sponge, made the towel into a cone shape and saturated the sponge with chloroform . . . Then I put it over Mr Rice’s face and ran out . . . ‘ Statement of Charles Jones, valet to William Marsh Rice, 1901.

Chapter 13
The Zealot of Hyderabad.
Funded by the Nizam of Hyderabad, Surgeon Major Edward Lawrie carried out a series of experiments aimed at settling the major bone of contention between doctors trying to stop chloroform deaths – did chloroform affect the breathing or the heart? His flawed and manipulated results stimulate new research. The hidden dangers of delayed chloroform poisoning.

‘If the patient had only been left alone, and the safeguard action of the vagus had not been frustrated by the injection of ether, the stoppage of the heart would have saved his life.’ Dr Lawrie criticising a surgeon’s attempt to resuscitate a patient by stimulating the heart. 1894.

Chapter 14
Fade to Black
Chloroform in the 20th century. Its use in the first and second world wars. Recent criminal cases. Chloroform up to date.

‘There are some of us who believe chloroform to be a most useful agent . . .’ L E. Morris, Professor of Anaesthesiology, 1963.

Published 31st August 2003 by Sutton Publishing Ltd.
Published in paperback, 20th January 2005 by The History Press Ltd

Chloroform: The Quest for Oblivion

2003, Sutton Publishing

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