24-Oct-1852: Darwin on the new miracle substance, chloroform

There’s something strangely comforting in reading that geniuses occasionally have to worry about mundane matters, such as carbuncles and the state of their teeth:

Charles Darwin to his cousin William Darwin Fox, 24th October 1852

[…] Farewell,—do come whenever you can possibly manage it. I cannot but hope that the Carbuncle may possibly do you good: I have heard of all sorts of weaknesses disappearing after a carbuncle: I suppose the pain is dreadful. I agree most entirely, what a blessed discovery is Chloroform: when one thinks of one’s children, it makes quite a little difference in ones happiness. The other day I had 5 grinders (two by the Elevator) out at a sitting under this wonderful substance, & felt hardly anything.

Darwin was a great proponent of the new miracle substance chloroform, whose anaesthetic properties were first discovered by Scottish obstetrician James Young Simpson in 1847.

The Darwins were also very early adopters of chloroform. In 1848, just a year after Simpson first used it, Darwin’s wife, Emma is believed to have received chloroform during the birth of their son, Frances. She was to receive chloroform during all her subsequent acts of labour. Indeed, so impressed was he with chloroform’s miraculous powers that Darwin (who, in his youth, had trained to be a doctor) wasn’t beyond administering it to his wife himself, if a suitably qualified doctor wasn’t available. During the birth of their son Leonard in 1850, as Darwin reported to his friend John Stevens Henslow:

I was so bold during my wifes confinement which are always rapid, as to administer Chloroform, before the Dr . came & I kept her in a state of insensibility of 1 & ½ hours & she knew nothing from first pain till she heard that the child was born.—It is the grandest & most blessed of discoveries.

The use of chloroform during childbirth was highly controversial (which is hardly surprising, bearing in mind how new it was). But, as we have seen, Darwin was quick to recommend it to his friends. In 1854, his friend Joseph Dalton Hooker reported:

My dear Darwin

I did give the Chloroform as before & with the best effect, though the Doctor was horribly prejudiced against it: & he having delv’d. 3–4000 women without it that is perhaps not to be wondered at.

It is hard to imagine such a revolutionary, new medical treatment being adopted quite so quickly these days—and for very good reasons. The Victorian faith in science, admirable though it was compared to today, does seem to have sometimes bordered on the reckless.

Writer and photographer Richard Carter, FCD is the founder of the Friends of Charles Darwin. He lives in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire.WebsiteFacebookTwitterNewsletterBooks
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