Dr James Simpson (he added the Young later for reasons which remain obscure) was born in Bathgate, the eighth child of a baker. Obviously gifted as a child, he attended the University of Edinburgh from the age of only 14, graduating in 1832. He was appointed to a Chair of Midwifery at the same institution in 1840, quickly establishing the position of this subject as a popular and essential part of medical education.
Extracts from the accompanying The Greatest Scot television programme are being added to these biographical notes as the programme is broadcast between November 9 and 13. If you live outside the UK, you will not be able to see these, but you may enjoy other videos about some of the subjects which are available via links in the text.
He was a pioneer in the use of anaesthetics, particularly chloroform, developing its use in surgery and midwifery. His emphasis on cleanliness dramatically reduced the risks of peri-natal deaths for both mother and child.
Earlier in 1847 he had used ether to relieve labour pains, but in a search for something better, Simpson experimented with different anaesthetic agents with his colleagues by inhaling their vapours around the dinner table at his home. Too much or too little of any particular agent would either have killed them or not had any effect.
He championed the use of chloroform against a certain amount of medical, moral and religious opposition. It was not until Queen Victoria used this anaesthetic during the birth of Prince Leopold (1853) that its use became generally accepted. Simpson also pioneered obstetric techniques and was responsible for much reform of hospital practice while working at the Infirmary in Edinburgh. Simpson was knighted in 1866 for services to medicine.
Simpson is buried in Warriston Cemetery (Edinburgh). Around 1700 medical colleagues and public figures joined his funeral procession and more than 100,000 people lined the route to the cemetery. He is remembered by the Simpson Memorial Maternity Pavilion in Edinburgh, together with a statue in Princes Street Gardens and a bust in Westminster Abbey (London).