In a footnote to a published pamphlet, chloroform pioneer Sir James Simpson made meagre admission of the part played by David Waldie, but there is no doubt he denied to him the public renown which he ought to have shared. He is not forgotten in Linlithgow, however, the town of his birth.
By James McKean
The discovery of the anaesthetic properties of chloroform is widely credited to Bathgate-born physician, Sir James Young Simpson, however, a century-old debate has long suggested otherwise. Naysayers have often cited Linlithgow-born David Waldie to be the true pioneer, who’s importance, it is claimed, is often cast to the wayside, having been reduced to a vague footnote in Simpson’s first account of the discovery.
Waldie’s historical significance has not been totally wiped out: plaques commemorating his contributions to medical science are displayed both in Linlithgow and in Calcutta- where he spent his later years. However, in the opinion of many, these commemorations do not reflect the truth, and in fact only contribute to belittling his importance.
What is Chloroform?
Chloroform is a clear, organic compound, first named by French chemist, Jean-Baptiste Dumas, in 1834. It is contemporarily used as a solvent for floor polishes, resins, and alkaloids; while also found in other domestic products such as mouthwash, toothpaste, and cold medicine.
Historically, it was used as an anaesthetic; poured onto a cloth or sponge, it was held over the face while the recipient inhaled the vapours. It was noted for its narcotic effects on the nervous system, and how immediately it acted in alleviating pain. It received widespread popularity following its formal introduction in 1847 and witnessed heavy usage throughout the American Civil War. It was also the anaesthetic of choice of Queen Victoria during her childbirth in 1858 to Prince Leopold.
David Waldie started his medical career in Edinburgh, where he first met James Simpson, studying medicine together at the Royal College of Surgeons. Following Waldie’s graduation in 1831, he initially practiced surgery and apothecary in his hometown of Linlithgow. Deciding in 1839 to instead pursue his passion for chemistry, he left Scotland and took on a career as a chemist at Liverpool’s Apothecaries’ Hall.
Waldie first experimented with chloroform when a prescription featuring choloric ether was brought to his place of work. Having found the sample to be initially quite crude, Waldie was able to extract a more uniform, purer chloroform. This was a medicinal feat in its own right, and a discovery that would turn out to be pivotal in using the compound as an anaesthetic.
Unfortunately, before he got the chance to publish his findings, two fires ravished Apothecaries’ Hall, one in 1845 and another in 1846, the latter of which destroyed the laboratory Waldie had been working in.
It is noted that Waldie continued his research at the residency of his associate, John Abrahams. It was at this address, 87 Bold Street, where it is thought that both he and Abrahams initially tested the substance for its anaesthetic properties. In a letter written by Abrahams’ son, it is stated that he found “…Mr. Waldie and my father experimenting on one another with chloroform; one of them, I think, was insensible on the sofa.” Unfortunately, no date can be assigned to this anecdote.
Meanwhile, back in Edinburgh, Simpson was also trialling chloroform as an anaesthetic, to a lesser success than that of Waldie. Having heard of Simpson’s failed endeavours, Waldie paid him a visit during a holiday to Scotland. It was here that Waldie recommended the purer chloroform he had been using and even proposed to send Simpson samples upon his return to Liverpool. Simpson didn’t hesitate and proceeded with Waldie’s recommendation, but instead of waiting on samples to arrive from Liverpool, he ordered pure chloroform to be prepared by Edinburgh-based chemists, Duncan, Flockhart and Co. The narcotic properties were immediately noted, and the chemists “were all under the table in a minute or two” after sampling.
Now with a successful anaesthetic, Simpson wasted no time to announce -and take full credit for- the discovery. He wrote to Waldie soon after, in November of 1847, letting him know of “the good results of our hasty conversation”, and released a pamphlet informing the rest of the medical world of the anaesthetic properties of chloroform, featuring the meagre footnote: “Mr. Waldie first named to me the Perchloride of Formyle as worthy, amongst others, of a trial.”
It is here that Waldie’s importance seems to be intentionally marginalised. In both the letter and the pamphlet, Simpson suggests Waldie merely ‘named’ chloroform to him, as opposed to strongly recommending it; he failed to mention that Waldie himself had successfully experimented with the substance prior to their discussion, hence his firm recommendation. This suggests that Simpson perhaps intended to belittle Waldie’s contribution.
Chloroform anaesthetic grew in popularity, as did Simpson’s recognition; he received knighthood, and was appointed as physician to the Queen of Scotland.
Waldie left Britain in 1853 for India and worked there as a chemist for Malcolm & Co. of Calcutta. He later opened his own chemical works, D. Waldie & Co., originally in Calcutta, but later relocated to Kasipur, West Bengal.
Following Simpson’s death in 1870, Waldie wrote letters to his brother, George Waldie, in which he contemplated whether it would be now possible to receive recognition, without detracting from Simpson’s legacy. George Waldie reprinted and dispersed these letters amongst the medical circles of Britain; however, the campaign was unsuccessful and Waldie remained unrecognised. Waldie died on the 23rd of June 1889 in Calcutta.
Calls were later made in 1934 for a plaque to be erected at 87 Bold Street commemorating the location as the place Waldie ‘carried out his research work in the discovery of chloroform anaesthesia.’ However, this too never saw the light of day.
It is very difficult to draw conclusions or argue fully for Waldie’s case; he was never able to publish anything on account of the fire in his laboratory, and letters written by Abrahams’ son are not dated.
At least he’s not rendered totally obscure to the history of chemistry, as the respective plaques in Linlithgow and Calcutta prove.