Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Simpson, James Young
SIMPSON, Sir JAMES YOUNG (1811–1870), physician, born on 7 June 1811 at Bathgate, Linlithgowshire, was youngest of seven sons of the village baker, David (d. 1830), fourth son of Alexander Simpson. Both father and mother, Mary Jervie, came of shrewd yeoman-farmer stock. The latter was of Huguenot descent.
At four James went to the local school. Proud of his early aptitude at lessons, his father and brothers (his mother died when he was nine) agreed to stint themselves to give him a college career. He entered the arts classes of Edinburgh University in 1825 at fourteen, ‘very, very young, very solitary,’ he said forty years later, when receiving the freedom of the city of Edinburgh. He began his medical studies in 1827, and graduated M.D. in 1832. His abilities were at once recognised, and he was made senior president of the Royal Medical Society of Edinburgh in 1835. In 1839 he was appointed to the midwifery chair there, although he was only twenty-eight years old. Thenceforth his practice grew rapidly.
In 1846, when news of the first trials of sulphuric ether in America reached Scotland, Simpson wrote: ‘It is a glorious thought, I can think of naught else.’ He at once made the first trial of it in obstetric practice, and, convinced of its utility, enthusiastically advocated its use. But he soon came to the conclusion that a more efficient and portable anæsthetic might be found. Chloroform had been hitherto used solely for internal administration. On 4 Nov. 1847 Simpson and his assistants, Doctors George Keith and Duncan, made for the first time the experiment of inhaling it. They proved its efficacy as an anæsthetic by simultaneously falling insensible below the table. The public trial of it was successfully held a fortnight later at Edinburgh Infirmary. Its use was strongly denounced as dangerous to health, morals, and religion, and Simpson had to battle stubbornly against prejudice, but he ultimately won the victory, and chloroform as an anæsthetic came into universal use.
In 1847 he was appointed one of her majesty's physicians for Scotland; and he became a foreign associate of the Academy of Medicine, Paris, the members firmly insisting on his election against the rules of the commission which had omitted his name. In 1856 he was awarded by the French Academy of Sciences the Monthyon prize of two thousand francs for ‘most important benefits done to humanity.’ He received the order of St. Olaf from the king of Sweden, and became member of nearly every medical society in Europe and America. In 1866 he was made D.C.L. of Oxford, and in the same year (3 Feb.) received a baronetcy, the first given to a doctor practising in Scotland.
But the development of anæsthesia was by no means Simpson's sole achievement. His genius was of a versatile order, and prompted him to attack questions as far asunder as acupressure and the use of the pyramids. His chief triumphs, apart from his contribution to anæsthesia, were in gynæcology and obstetrics. It may be said that he laid the greater part of the foundation of gynæcology. His discovery of the means of investigating disease, notably the uterine sound and the sponge tent, gave a power of diagnosis previously wanting, and enabled the practitioner to carry out treatment impossible before. To the science of obstetrics at the same time Simpson gave a new precision, while in the practical branches, notably in the use of the obstetric forceps and of the various methods of ovariotomy, his work was of the highest value. His papers on version in deformed pelves, on methods of version, on puerperal conditions, and many other subjects, are of permanent importance. His monograph on hermaphroditism is still the best exposition of a most difficult subject. His work on acupressure failed to attain the success he predicted for it, and has been superseded. Nevertheless, it brought out some interesting facts, valuable in themselves, as to the results of occlusion of blood-vessels.
Simpson was admirable in controversy. When in the right he was irresistible, and even when in the wrong he was a formidable opponent. His foresight was as remarkable as his insight. He anticipated in advance of his time the development of ovariotomy. Always suggestive in his occasional addresses, he may be credited with having prophesied in his graduation address the discovery of Röntgen's rays. ‘Possibly even by the concentration of electrical and other lights we may render many parts of the body, if not the whole body, sufficiently diaphanous for the inspection of the practised eye of the physician and surgeon.’ In his treatment of one subject, however, he did not show his characteristic sagacity. He attacked the Listerian system of antiseptics, although it was the use of antiseptics that rendered his own valuable methods of uterine investigation and dilatation free from danger to health and life.
Simpson interested himself in literature as well as in science, and devoted much energy to archæological studies. He published three volumes on antiquarian subjects. After a few months' suffering from angina pectoris, Simpson died on 6 May 1870 at his hospitable house, 52 Queen Street. His family declined the offer of a grave in Westminster Abbey, and he was buried in Warriston cemetery, Edinburgh. That city accorded him a public funeral. A statue was erected to him in Princes Street, but the Maternity and Simpson Memorial Hospital, erected at the expense of his friends, is his chief monument in Edinburgh. A bust has been placed in Westminster Abbey, and on it is recorded that to Simpson's ‘genius and benevolence the world owes the blessings derived from the use of chloroform for the relief of suffering.’
Simpson possessed an inspiring and vigorous personality. His sympathetic manner appealed to all he met. He was always ready to attend the poor. An admirable host, he gathered about him representatives of many ranks and opinions. His conversation, like his writings, showed a rare alertness of intellect, and few of his profession have proved more successful lecturers. By his achievements and mental power he claims association in the history of medical science with Harvey, Jenner, and Lister.
Simpson married, in 1839, Jessie Grindlay, his cousin, who survived him only a few weeks. Five of his nine children died before him. He was succeeded in the baronetcy by his son Walter Grindlay.
Simpson's scattered papers and essays were collected in a series of volumes (all published at Edinburgh), of which the titles are: 1. ‘Obstetric Memoirs and Contributions,’ edited by W. O. Priestley and H. R. Storer, 2 vols. 8vo, 1855–6. 2. ‘Selected Obstetrical and Gynæcological Works,’ edited by Dr. W. Black, 1871, 8vo. 3. ‘Anæsthesia, Hospitalism,’ &c., edited by his son, Sir W. G. Simpson, bart., 1871. 4. ‘Clinical Lectures on the Diseases of Women,’ edited by Professor Alexander Russell Simpson, 1872. 5. ‘Archæological Essays,’ edited by J. Stuart, LL.D., 2 vols. 8vo, Edinburgh, 1873. The index catalogue of the library of the surgeon-general's office, U.S. Army, Washington, gives a full list of Simpson's separate contributions to medical periodicals (cf. Allibone's Dict. of English Lit. ii. 2108).[Memoir by John Duns, D.D. (with portrait), Edinburgh, 1873, 8vo; Sir James Young Simpson (in Famous Scots Series) by Miss E. B. Simpson, 1896, 8vo; and private information.]