Alan Crosby's blog: Childbirth, chloroform and microfilm

By Jon Bauckham, 12 November 2015 - 11:57am

Alan Crosby stumbled across a rather unusual set of Victorian birth announcements when rifling through some old newspapers earlier this month

Dr Alan Crosby is the editor of the Local Historian and a columnist for WDYTYA? MagazineThursday 12 November 2015
Alan Crosby
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One place where Bonfire Night is still taken very seriously is Lewes, East Sussex, which hosts a procession of local bonfire societies every year (Photo: Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images)

James Young Simpson, who discovered the anaesthetic properties of chloroform, lies on the floor after experimenting with the solution on himself (Photo: Getty Images)

I was going through the births, marriages and deaths columns in a Banbury newspaper for the late 1840s, making a comprehensive list of all entries relating to my extended family.

I’d started the issues for 1849, winding slowly through the scratched microfilm, frustrated by the fact that ‘my’ surnames were all too common in the area. Was she, or were they, related to me or not?

But my attention was caught by a most surprising entry – surprising at least to me, as I’d not previously come across anything similar in all my researches. “January 31, (under the influence of Chloroform), the wife of Mr. Thomas Elkington, of Arlescote, a son”. Further searching showed that over the next couple of years a few other entries also referred to chloroform.

I was dimly aware that Queen Victoria had chloroform administered during the birth of some of her nine children, but I didn’t know much else. So, a little research followed and I found that chloroform (officially, trichloromethane) was discovered in 1831 and first used as an anaesthetic by Dr James Simpson of Edinburgh in November 1847. Apparently he made two of his dinner guests "insensible" – don’t try this at home!

Within a year chloroform was being used during childbirth, but it seems remarkable that only 14 months after the Edinburgh dinner party, Mrs Elkington of Arlescote near Banbury was given chloroform during her labour. The child must have been born at home, so I guess that she had a particularly progressive and up-to-date doctor in attendance.

My family didn’t make use of chloroform – or at least didn’t announce it in the papers – and for Queen Victoria’s it was first employed at the birth of child no.8 (Prince Leopold, 7 April 1853).

Banbury was clearly at the forefront of medical science!
 

Alan Crosby lives in Lancashire and is editor of The Local Historian. He is an honorary research fellow at Lancashire and Liverpool universities

 

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