Cholera, Chloroform, and the Science of Medicine: A Life of John Snow

By Peter Vinten-Johansen; Howard Brody et al. | Go to book overview

Chapter 6
Chloroform

WHEN ANESTHESIOLOGISTS WITH A TASTE FOR the history of their specialty read John Snow, they generally turn to On the Inhalation of Ether or On Chloroform and discover comprehensive, albeit dated, accounts of these subjects, but reading Snow's work from the white-hot years 1847 to 1851 is a very different experience. He conducted research on the installment plan, and he was a serial and accumulative thinker in the golden age of serialization. As the novel-reading public eagerly awaited the latest installment of David Copperfield in Household Words, the British medical world followed the latest developments chiefly via Lancet and LMG. London had learned of ether through articles, bulletins, letters, and journals. Definitive reference works or compendiums were few and far between. Most of the real action was taking place in lectures, medical societies, and journals, and it is in the latter that one finds evidence of Snow's furiously productive months of research in 1847 on the properties of ether and the risks of administering it, within the context of contemporary debates. Often writing in installments, repeating himself to get new readers up to speed, and modifying as he went, he gradually developed his views on the subject. Then, as the workaholic Snow raced to keep pace with and ahead of developments, the ground shifted unexpectedly. Just as a serial novel might have it, an Edinburgh professor of obstetrics, James Young Simpson, directed the attention of the Medico-Chirurgical Society of Edinburgh to a new agent termed, with all the chemical nicety of the day, perchloride of formyle, or chloroform.

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