Anesthesia a la Reine | Office for Science and Society

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 doctor, Dr. John Snow administered chloroform by holding a handkerchief soaked in the chemical over the royal mouth. The results were so satisfactory that the Queen also asked for chloroform for her next confinement, after which the chemical became 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 doctor. On November 4, 1847, Simpson and his friends were looking for entertainment and unsuccessfully experimented with inhaling various substances. Then they tried chloroform. After initial hilarity, Simpson and his friends passed out. His reaction upon waking was, “This is much stronger and better than ether.” Ether was introduced the previous year when surgeon John Collins Warren removed a tumor on 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 successfully delivered a baby just four days later after chloroforming the mother. Within a month, he had successfully used chloroform on more than fifty patients, one of whom was reportedly so amazed by its effectiveness that she called the daughter she gave birth “anesthesia.” Would be a great footnote to the story if true. It is not. The baby’s name was Wilhelmina.

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The procedure was not without risk, and in 1848 the first death attributed to chloroform was recorded. Hannah Green, a young girl, died, likely due to improper administration of the anesthetic. This, along with the Calvinist Church of Scotland’s opposition to chloroform, cast a shadow over its use. The Church opposed the use of drugs in childbirth, arguing that God had punished all of Eve’s seed by ensuring that women would give birth in pain. It seems that Eve’s decision to tempt Adam with this fruit from the tree of knowledge was not a good one.

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However, opposition to the use of chloroform evaporated when Queen Victoria agreed to be anesthetized for the birth of Prince Leopold. The Queen’s approval came as close as possible to God’s approval, and the use of chloroform increased. Soon it was even incorporated into various patent medicines such as Hamlin’s Wizard Oil and Chlorodyne as a “cure-all”. Not only was this useless, it was dangerous. Ingesting significant amounts of chloroform can cause liver damage. Chloroform is no longer used as an anesthetic today, but because it is a by-product of water chlorination, we are exposed to small doses in our drinking water. Whether or not this poses a lifetime risk is debatable, but chloroform is easily removed through the use of a household water filter. Bottled water is not treated with chlorine and therefore does not contain chloroform.

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