The Discovery of Chloroform

The discovery and use of chloroform revolutionised surgery in the first half of the nineteenth century. As an alternative form of anaesthetic to ether, the medical fraternity debated the comparative differences between these two agents for most of the 1800’s.

American Samuel Guthrie, German Justus von Liebig, and Frenchman Eugne Soubeiran discovered chloroform separately and almost simultaneously. French chemist Jean-Baptiste-Andr Dumas named the chemical and described its makeup in 1834.

Chloroform, or perchloride of formyle with a chemical formula C2HCl3 can be produced using a variety of processes, and is a heavy, clear transparent liquid. The first medical uses of chloroform were as a treatment for asthma, and as a means to dull pain, particularly during the process of setting broken bones. It’s first use as a total anaesthetic was not realised until a young obstetrics surgeon, Dr James Young Simpson began to read news from America describing successful surgeries in late 1846 using ether to induce total unconsciousness.

Dr Simpson began to experiment with ether to relieve the pain of childbirth in early 1847 but quickly decided it was unsuitable. With his two assistants, Dr Simpson continued his research and began tests using chloroform. In November 1847 the first demonstration met with wide spread resistance from the medical community however subsequent demonstrations soon proved the success of chloroform as an effective anaesthetic inducing agent. Simpson’s cause was furthered when a well-known Scottish theologian, Dr. Chalmers, lent his support to the use of chloroform, and Queen Victoria asked for it in the delivery of her child.

Today, chloroform is seldom used as an anaesthetic due to the risk of damage to the liver and the kidneys. Minor effects of chloroform exposure include dizziness, headaches, and fatigue. Chloroform is used today as an industrial agent in the process of manufacturing pesticides and dyes, as well as for obtaining penicillin