It is now commonly accepted that James Y. Simpson, (1817–1870), professor and chairman of the Department of Midwifery at Edinburgh University (Scotland), tried chloroform after it was suggested to him in October 1847 by David Waldie, L.R.C.S. (Edinburgh; 1813–1889), pharmacist in Liverpool. Likewise, it is commonly accepted that Simpson was ungenerous in acknowledging his friend's contribution to the discovery.

Indeed, a brief footnote in Simpson's first account of the discovery1stated, “Waldie had mentioned the perchloride of formyle (chloroform) among others as worthy of a trial.” In the same footnote, Simpson warmly thanked his assistants, J. Matthews Duncan, F.R.C.S. (1826–1890), and George Keith, as well as William Gregory (1803–1858), who had suggested the chloride of hydrocarbon (Dutch liquid) and given him samples of various compounds to try. Gregory was chairman of the Chemistry Department at Edinburgh University. Duncan and Keith had studied midwifery under Simpson.

However, a review of the facts surrounding the discovery of chloroform leads us to question the importance of Waldie's contribution and the extent of Simpson's ingratitude. The reminiscences of Duncan and James Miller (1812–1854), professor of surgery at Edinburgh University, never mention Waldie. In addition, throughout the years after the discovery, Simpson repeatedly thanked Waldie.

In early 1848, Miller, who was a professor of surgery at Edinburgh University and neighbor of Simpson, described the evening of November 4, 1847, as it was reported to him by participants.2Although Simpson initially discarded the chloroform as “too heavy,” he later changed his mind and retrieved it from the wastebasket. Miller does not mention Waldie.

Duncan, who was then a lodger and one of Simpson's assistants (later becoming a renowned obstetrician in Edinburgh then in London), gave a different and more detailed version of the events in a March 6, 1870, letter to Robert Christison (1797–1880), a professor of toxicology and medical jurisprudence at Edinburgh University.3A copy of that letter was sent by Duncan's widow to the British Medical Journal  in 1896.4The letter indicates that, a few days before the discovery, Simpson and Duncan visited Gregory, who gave them samples of various compounds. Duncan inhaled several of them on the morning of November 4, 1847. He found chloroform to be “the most interesting of them” and brought it to Simpson's dining room that evening. He reported that he had forgotten the name given to the compound, but that “it certainly was not chloroform.” It probably was perchloride of formyle.1 

Duncan's sister Isabella, in two short posthumous biographies of her brother,5–7added that he had been unconscious for 15 min after he had inhaled chloroform. It was this response that prompted him to suggest it to Simpson. She indicated that her brother had been hurt when Simpson ignored his important role in the discovery although he had never complained. Duncan, too, never mentioned Waldie.

Thus, both Miller and Duncan ignored Waldie.

In a lecture given to the Liverpool Literary and Philosophical Society on November 29, 1847,8Waldie complained of Simpson's lack of acknowledgment. Possibly encouraged by family and friends, he was more emphatic in a pamphlet published in 1870 after Simpson's death.9But Waldie was unfair to his late friend who had profusely thanked him in a letter accompanying his account of the discovery1he had sent him in 1847.10Simpson also frequently mentioned Waldie's name in his lectures to medical students.9 

In a letter to his Liverpool colleague John Abraham (1813–1881), pharmacist at Clay & Abraham Co., Waldie admitted that Simpson's acknowledgment “had been handsome.”11Waldie was thus amply thanked for a mere suggestion he had offered in October 1847.

*University of Alabama at Birmingham, Birmingham, Alabama.

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Miller J: Experience with Chloroform. Edinburgh, Sutherland & Knox, 1848, pp 9–11
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The Life of Sir Robert Christison, Bart, Memoirs (volume 2). Edited by his sons. Edinburgh, W. Blackwood & Sons, 1885, pp 352–3
Duncan JHM: The jubilee of chloroform. Br Med J 1896; 2:1413
Levak ID: Aberdeen, archives and anaesthesia, Essays on the History of Anaesthesia. Edited by Barr M, Boulton TB, Wilkinson DJ. New York, Royal Society Medical Press Ltd., 1996, pp 201–3
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Waldie D: Chloroform, the new agent for producing insensibility to pain by inhalation. Pharmaceutical Times 1848; 3:201–3
Waldie D: The True Story of the Introduction of Chloroform into Anaesthetics. Edinburgh, Oliver & Boyd, 1870, pp 7, 21–3
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Dilling WJ: David Waldie, LRCS (Edinb): The prophet of anaesthetic properties of chloroform. Liverpool Medico-Chirurgical J 1934; 42:82–98
Dundee JW: David Waldie: Facts and fiction. Br J Anaesth 1953; 8:218–29