Hans Christian Andersen, James Young Simpson, and ether frolics

JMS Pearce
Hull, England, United Kingdom

 

Hans Christian Andersen, who described James Young Simpson's ether frolics
Fig 1. Hans Christian Andersen in 1869. Source: Odense City Museums via Wikimedia.

In May 1847, the widely admired writer of literary fairy tales and stories Hans Christian Andersen (Fig 1) left Copenhagen on a tour of Germany and Holland and arrived in London on June 23. There he was enthusiastically received by Joseph Hambro, a Danish entrepreneur, banker, whom he knew from Copenhagen and his son, Carl Joachim. He also met Charles Dickens, and the two quickly became friends. In August he took the train with the Hambros to Edinburgh, where at a dinner held in his honor, he met “the famous Dr Simpson,” who gave him a tour of the old part of the city.

James Young Simpson (Fig 2) had been elected Professor of Midwifery at the University of Edinburgh in 1840, and having learned of Robert Liston’s successful amputation under ether anesthesia, he pioneered ether’s use in childbirth on January 19, 1847. Later that year, in November, he would also pioneer the use of chloroform in childbirth.

In subsequent descriptions, Andersen noted how during his dinner in August 1847, Simpson performed ether frolics (Fig 3) to entertain his guests.

James Young Simpson, who experimented with ether, an early form of anesthesia
Fig 2. James Young Simpson. Source: National Library of Medicine via Wikimedia. No known restrictions on publication.

Andersen recounts the unusual experience:

I came in contact with several famous people in social life . . . at the home of the excellent Dr Simpson “The Danish Walter Scott” was the name of honour with which many people honoured me, unworthy though I was… We met at the home of Dr Simpson, and in the large circle, which was gathered there, several experiments were made with breathing in ether. I thought it distasteful, especially to see ladies in this dreamy intoxication; they laughed with open lifeless eyes; there was something unpleasant about it, and I said so, recognizing at the same time that it was a wonderful and blessed invention to use in painful operations, but not to play with; it was wrong to do it; it was almost like tempting God; a worthy old gentleman took my part and said the same; by asserting what I did, I seemed to have won his heart.1

People laughing in a druken stupor on the cover of Ether Frolics by David C. Heyman
Fig 3. Ether Frolics. Source.

Andersen noted in his diary:

August the 17th: Dinner at Dr Simpson where Mrs Crowe and another poet drank ether. I had the feeling of being among two insane who laughed with open eyes; I found it outstanding for operation, but not to be used to tempt God.

He left Scotland that month and returned to Denmark. Andersen and Simpson never met again, but the two continued an indirect connection through correspondence with the Hambros and other friends. On November 4, 1847, Simpson and his two assistants, George Keith and James Matthews Duncan, anaesthetized themselves in his living-room with chloroform, which he also administered to a niece of his wife, who became the first woman to receive chloroform. He then used it on his obstetric patients and in the same year reported his success to the Medico-Chirurgical Society in Edinburgh on November 10.

If it were not for the famous storyteller Hans Christian Andersen, we would not know of Simpson’s prior use of “ether frolics” for entertainment, a sociable practice popular for a limited time.

 

References

  1. Andersen HC. The Fairy Tale of My Life. Copenhagen: Arnold Busck’s Forlag. 1954.
  2. Secher Ole. Hans Andersen and James Young Simpson. Brit. J. Anaesth 1972; 44:1212.
  3. Pearce JMS. The “Ether Controversy”. Hektoen Int Spring 2021.

 


 

JMS PEARCE, MD, FRCP, is emeritus consultant neurologist in the Department of Neurology at the Hull Royal Infirmary, England.

 

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