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Anesthesia a la Reine

Chloroform used to be a widely used anesthetic, dating back to the 1800s.

Queen Victoria was the first monarch to give birth to a child under anesthesia. Prince Leopold, the Queen’s eighth child, was born in 1853 after her physician Dr. John Snow had administered chloroform by holding a handkerchief saturated with the chemical over the royal mouth. The results were so satisfactory that the Queen asked for chloroform for her next delivery as well, after which the chemical came to be known in Britain as “anesthesia a la Reine.”

Chloroform was first made by the French chemist Jean Baptiste Dumas by reacting acetic acid with chlorine, but its use as an anesthetic was pioneered by James Simpson, a Scottish physician. On the fourth of November, 1847, Simpson and his friends were in search of some entertainment and experimented with inhaling various substances without success. They then tried chloroform. After some initial hilarity, Simpson and pals passed out. His reaction, on waking, was "this is far stronger and better than ether." Ether had been introduced the previous year when Surgeon John Collins Warren removed a tumour from the neck of a patient who had been anesthetized with ether at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Simpson capitalized on his adventure with chloroform and just four days later successfully delivered a baby after chloroforming the mother. Within a month he had used chloroform successfully on more than fifty patients, one of whom was said to have been so delighted with its effectiveness that she named the daughter she delivered “Anesthesia.” Would be a great footnote to the story if it were true. It isn’t. The baby was named Wilhelmina.

The procedure was not without risk, and in 1848, the first death attributed to chloroform was recorded. Hannah Green a young girl died, probably due to improper administration of the anesthetic. This, along with the Calvinist Church of Scotland’s opposition to chloroform cast a shadow on its use. The Church opposed the use of any anesthetic in childbirth, reasoning that God had punished all of Eve’s descendants by ensuring that women would bring children forth in pain. It seems that Eve’s decision to tempt Adam with that fruit of the tree of knowledge was not a good one.

Opposition to the use of chloroform, however, evaporated when Queen Victoria agreed to be anesthetized for the birth of Prince Leopold. Approval by the Queen was as close as you could get to approval by God and the use of chloroform proliferated. Soon it was even incorporated into various patent medicines such as “Hamlin’s Wizard Oil” and “Chlorodyne” as a “cure all.” This was not only useless but dangerous. Ingestion of significant amounts of chloroform can cause liver damage. Today chloroform is no longer used as an anesthetic, but since it is a byproduct of water chlorination, we are exposed to small doses in our drinking water. Whether or not this presents a lifetime risk is debatable but chloroform is readily removed by using a home water filter. Bottled waters are not treated with chlorine so they do not contain any chloroform.


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