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The Rise and Fall of Chloroform

James Young Simpson didn’t invent chloroform, but he championed its use as a surgical anesthetic. He opened a container of it during a meeting of physicians in 1847 and laughed at the giggling, snoring results. Chloroform was better than the ether then in use, as ether was very flammable and often left the patient thrashing about in their sleep. But any anesthetic was suspicious, because people were afraid of not waking up afterward. And no one really understood how it worked.    

More questions about chloroform arose, mostly because the substance was ill-understood: some, for example, believed it could be strictly a respiratory depressant. But such concerns were set aside for the demand created by the Civil War, which required a fast-acting anesthetic on the battlefield. Of the 80,000 operations surveyed by Union physicians, all but 254 used anesthetic of some kind — usually chloroform, and sometimes a mixture of ether and chloroform to help mitigate the risks of either.

Any fears about induced sleep were quickly mitigated by the searing pain of a shrapnel-fed leg. The patient would inhale and the vapor would first numb the senses. Relaxation would set in, followed by a feeling of impairment. The patient would cease to move, to feel and to have any awareness of the scalpels digging into their flesh. In short, it was just what they needed.

Occasional cardiac death aside, chloroform was a wonder drug. And any lingering doubts the general public had about its administration ended in 1853, when Queen Victoria gave birth without feeling a thing.

As chloroform grew in popularity for surgery, it was also used for entertainment at parties and for private highs. But all it took was for one person to accuse a doctor of impropriety while a victim was unconscious from chloroform, and the substance gained a reputation as a crime tool. Read about chloroform during its heyday at Van Winkle’s. -via Digg


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