Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Esdaile, James

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ESDAILE, JAMES (1808–1859), surgeon and mesmerist, eldest son of the Rev. Dr. Esdaile of Perth, was born at Montrose 6 Feb. 1808. After the usual school education he studied medicine at Edinburgh University, and graduated there as M.D. in 1830. From boyhood his lungs had been delicate, and he was consequently recommended to attempt medical practice in a warm climate. He obtained a medical appointment in the service of the East India Company, and reached Calcutta in July 1831. He was stationed in the Bengal presidency, and for four years was capable of heavy work. At the end of 1835, however, he broke down, and went on furlough for about two years and a half. He had wide sympathies and many interests, and leaves a pleasant and lively account of this long holiday (Letters from the Red Sea, Egypt, and the Continent, Calcutta, 1839), in which he visited Egypt and Italy. He returned to Calcutta in November 1838, and was soon afterwards put in charge of the hospital at Hooghly, about twenty-five miles north of Calcutta. He describes the place as a wretched and obscure village, but was very busy in his professional work, and new and unexpected interests gradually absorbed him. He had read a little of mesmerism, 'but only scraps,' as he says, 'from the newspapers.' The outspoken declaration of Dr. Elliotson, in his Harveian oration of 1838, that he should despise himself if he denied the truth of the mesmeric phenomena, made a considerable impression on Esdaile. He had, however, never seen any one mesmerised before trying the expuriment himself, on 4 April 1845, on a Hindoo convict of middle age, who was in need of two extremely painful surgical operations. When the pain was most severe and only one opfration was complete, it occurred to him to try to soothe the patient by the 'mesmeric passes.' He made the attempt steadily, and after some time induced a condition of deep sleep, in which his patient was quite indifferent to sharp pin-pricks on the hands and very strongly pungent solution of ammonia in the mouth. In the opinion of the English judge and collector who witnessed and wrote their separate accounts of the scene, there was 'a complete suspension of sensibility to external impressions of the most painful kind.' A week later (11 April) Esdaile went a step further and mesmerised the same patient before the second and similar operation. The man readily became unconscious, showed no symptoms of pain during the operation, and when he woke thirteen hours later was quite unaware that anything had been done to him. These results were first printed in the 'India Journal of Medical and Physical Science,' May 1845, and evidence of similar anaesthesia in amputation of the arm and some major surgical operations quickly followed, The medical press declared that Esdaile must have been very easily duped. Neither Esdaile nor his critics were aware of the position established in the 'Neurypnology' of James Braid [q. v.] in 1843. Esdaile was generally regarded as an eminently honest and practical enthusiast. After the first year of this mesmeric practice he had accumulated more than a hundred cases of these anesthetic operations, and reported the results to the government, whereupon the deputy-governor of Bengal, Sir Herbert Maddock, appointed as a first test a committee of seven members, four of whom were medical men, to report on Esdaile's surgical operations. After some careful investigation of nine operations they drew up a very favourable description, followed by the conclusion that it was 'incumbent on the government to afford to their zealous and meritorious officer [Dr. Esdaile] such assistance as may facilitate his investigations.' Accordingly, in November 1846, a small hospital in Calcutta was put at his disposal by the government for a year at least of experiment. Medical visitors were appointed by the deputy-governor of Bengal, and the hospital was open to the public. Esdaile directed that all the mesmerisation should be performed by his native servants and dressers in the hospital, and reserved all his strength for the general direction of the plan and the performance of the operations. The process of mesmerisation was often tedious, and occasionally lasted over large parts often or twelve days before patients were considered to be completely protected against pain in a serious operation; sometimes, however, this condition was reached in half an hour. The report of the medical visitors at the end of the year (December 1847) was that complete insensibility to pain was produced by mesmerism in the most severe operations, and that its influence in reducing the shock of the operation was decidedly favourable. The new governor-general, Lord Dalhousie, very soon after his arrival in India, in January 1848, congratulated Esdaile on his success, in which he showed a lifelong interest, and at once promoted him to be presidency surgeon (cf. Lord Dalhousie's letter in Morning Chronicle, 14 Aug. 1856). Esdaile was the youngest surgeon who could have held the place, and it is a post that generally leads to a fortune from private practice. This was the culminating point of Esdaile's career. Within the same year (1848) the use of chloroform and ether as anaesthetics was beginning in India. Esdaile felt the imprudence of a hasty adoption of chloroform under all circumstances, inasmuch as there could be little doubt that occasionally its dangers were greater than those of mesmerism, and in India its results might be only a little more certain. He stayed on in Calcutta for three more years, neglecting his opportunities for making a large private practice, though he was still further promoted to be marine surgeon in 1850. His interest in mesmerism continued to be very keen. For those who held aloof entirely he expressed some vigorous contempt. The natives had much regard for him, They found that he successfully attempted the removal of tumours in elephantiasis weighing up to 7½ stone, upon which other surgeons declined to operate. In all he records 261 painless operations of his own under mesmerism, some very severe, with a death-rate of about 5½ per cent. He left Calcutta 1 June 1851, as soon as his twenty years of service were up, though he was only forty-three, 'for,' to use his own words, 'I detested the climate, the country, and all its ways, from the moment I first set foot in it.' He went to live near Perth, declined any further professional practice, and for a time occupied himself in recording and explaining his past doings. When the American Congress in 1853 offered a prize of a hundred thousand dollars to the discoverer of the anæsthetic powers of ether, described as the earliest anæsthetic, be addressed to the congress an indignant protest, not claiming the dollars, but denying that ether preceded mesmerism. After his return he sought retirement, and his Indian successes were little known. He tried a few mesmeric experiments in Scotland, and came to the conclusion that they were unduly exhausting to himself, and that only 'the depressing influence of disease will be found to reduce Europeans to the impressible condition of the nervous system so common among the eastern nations.' In his domestic life he had had many troubles. He had first married before leaving for India in 1831, and his wife had died on the voyage out. He married a second time, and suffered a second loss. After a third marriage, in 1851, his wife survived him many years. He had no children. In the later years of his life he found Scotland too cold a climate for his health, and came to live at Sydenham, where he died 10 Jan. 1859, aged 50.

His published books consist of the following:

  1. 'Letters from the Red Sea, Egypt, and the Continent,' Calcutta, 1839.
  2. 'Mesmeric Facts, reported by James Esdaile, M.D., Civil Assistant-Surgeon,' Hooghly, 1845 (reprinted from 'India Journal of Medical and Physical Science,' vol. iii. Nos. 5, 6, 1845).
  3. 'Mesmerism in India, and its Practical Application in Surgery and Medicine,' London, 1846.
  4. 'A Record of Cases treated in the Mesmeric Hospital, from November 1846 to December 1847, with Reports of the Official Visitors. Printed by order of the Government,' Calcutta, 1847.
  5. 'A Review of my Reviewers,' Calcutta, 1848 (reprinted from the 'India Register of Medical Science,' vol. i.)
  6. 'The Introduction of Mesmerism as an Anaesthetic and Curative Agent into the Hospitals of India,' Perth, 1852.
  7. 'Natural and Mesmeric Clairvoyance, with the Practical Application of Mesmerism in Surgery and Medicine,' London, 1852.

Many articles and letters were published by those who sympathised with him in England: the chief of these are to be found in the 'Zoist,' 1840, xiv. 193, xv. 284, 413; 1847, xvi. 563; 1848, xxii. 1; 1849, xxiv, 393; 1850, xxx. 189: 1851, xxxiv. 113, 313; 1853, xl. 419, xliii. 294; 1854, xiv. 74.

[Besides Esdaile's own writings and the Government Reports of 1847-8, the chief authorities are the Indian newspapers, 1846-51 (among which cf. Calcutta Englishman and Military Chronicle, 1846, 15 April, 9, 13, 16, 28, 29 May, 3 and 10 June; Bengal Hurkaru, 4 June 1846; Bombay Bi-monthly Times, 15 Oct. and 1 Nov. 1846; Delhi Gazette, 11 Jan. 1848; Eastern Star, 3 June 1848; India Register of Medical Science, 1848, pp. 51, 55, 79, 761-4; Calcutta Star, 10 Jan. and 27 Feb. 1850; Bombay Medical Times, 7 June 1851; Calcutta Morning Chronicle, 12 Dec. 1851); Introductory Lecture at Calcutta Medical College by Dr. Allan Webb, Calcutta, 1850; Tenth Report of London Mesmeric Infirmary, London, 1859; and private information.]

A. T. M.