Born in Bathgate, West Lothian, James Young Simpson entered Edinburgh University aged 14 to study classics, changing to medicine in 1827. He qualified at 18 and studied obstetrics, gaining the MD in 1832. He progressed rapidly in midwifery, was elected President of the Royal Medical Society in 1835 and became a recognised authority on diseases of the placenta. In December 1839 he was elected by one vote to the Edinburgh chair of midwifery and hundreds attended his lectures.
Simpson practiced hypnotism and then ether inhalation to relieve labour pains before introducing chloroform in November 1847. Experiments and observations helped him recognise the advantages of pain relief in labour and for operative procedures. He collected statistics to show that the outcome of operations was much better in anaesthetised patients, and published his views on the causes of deaths during anaesthesia.
Simpson’s practice and teaching of obstetrics was forward-looking. He thought hospital planning might prevent cross-infection. In 1848 he introduced the ventouse, or pneumatic traction apparatus, which was less traumatic than forceps. In later years, his studies of the classics led to research into archaeology and Greek medicine. He died after a short illness and over 30,000 lined Edinburgh’s streets at his funeral.