Born at Bromfield near Ludlow, Henry Hill Hickman was the seventh of thirteen children and son of a tenant farmer. He studied medicine in Edinburgh and London and was admitted as a member of the Royal College of Surgeons of England in 1820.
Hickman married in 1821 and set up practice in Ludlow. He wanted to alleviate pain in operations and experimented on animals that had inhaled carbon dioxide gas or deoxygenated air, a state he called suspended animation. He amputated ears, tails and legs but the animals appeared to experience no pain and completely recovered. This insensibility was caused by asphyxia. In 1824, he wrote to T A Knight, a fellow of the Royal Society, reporting that surgery could be carried out painlessly and successfully. He also published a pamphlet and sent it to the President of the Royal Society, Humphry Davy.
Despite publishing his findings, Hickman’s work attracted no attention in Britain. He travelled to France but only Baron Dominique Jean Larrey, Napoleon’s field surgeon, showed any interest. Hickman returned to England a disappointed man and set up practice in Tenbury Wells, Worcestershire, where he died two years later.