William Ernest Henley; a Study in the "Counter-Decadence" of the 'Nineties

By Jerome Hamilton Buckley | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 3.
IN HOSPITAL. EDINBURGH: 1873-1875

SIR JAMES SIMPSON may have wondered in the last year of his life whether his long labors had been in vain. He could not doubt his accomplishment; the "perchloride of formyle" that he had introduced to a generation skeptical as to its religious propriety had now become the standard prelude to every surgical operation. He remembered his triumphs: how the first grateful mother to use the drug in childbirth had named her resultant daughter Anaesthesia, how the Queen herself had placed the royal approval upon his discovery during her confinement with Prince Arthur, how the late Consort had talked to him enthusiastically "of Punch, Scotland, and chloroform."1 His battle lay behind him; he had made a distinct and valid contribution to the arts of healing. Yet his victory was incomplete as long as surgeons refused to see the relation of dirt to disease. A painless incision could not avert a painful infection. If the number of operations for minor ailments had multiplied tenfold, pyaemia and gangrene had increased proportionately.

In 1869 Sir James issued a sweeping indictment of Victorian medical practice. His ten-year survey of London, Glasgow, and Edinburgh hospitals revealed that two out of every five simple amputations and two out of every three amputations through the thigh proved fatal.2 And there were no statistics to tell "of the unspeakable agony patients suffered as the gangrene gnawed at the living flesh, of the sharp cries of pain and the tragic prayers breathed to the Divine mercy for the speedy gift of death."3 Yet the statistics themselves were

____________________
1
See Eve Blantyre Simpson, Sir James Y. Simpson ( Edinburgh, 1896), pp. 60, 63, 139.
2
See G. T. Wrench, Lord Lister ( New York, n.d.), pp. 130, 163. In figures: of 2,089 simple amputations, 855 resulted in death; in Edinburgh, of 371 amputations, 161 resulted in death.
3
Wrench, p. 130.

-42-

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