Skip to main content

Chloroform: the quest for oblivion – Linda Stratmann ****

Before there was anaesthetic, there was suffering. Surgery was a gruelling experience of agonizing pain that the surgeon had to hurry through at such speed that there was little time for making the best job of it. Linda Stratmann gives us an in-depth view of the rise and fall of chloroform, once touted as the perfect and safe anaesthetic, only to kill thousands of people.
Along the way, we hear of the various parallel discoveries of chloroform, initial confusion over just what it was and what it would do, and a whole host of examples of chloroform being used – well and badly, in surgery and for pleasure, in crime and in war.
Mostly it is a real pleasure, over and above anything that might be expected from a book on a relatively obscure aspect of medicine. The reason is that Stratmann does a wonderful job of capturing the feel of the time. She is at her best when relating a juicy chloroform story in full, such as the remarkable story of Adelaide Barrett’s murder of her husband with chloroform. It is also fascinating to see just how stubborn and unscientific many of the medical profession were. This applied to everything from the use of anaesthetic in the first place (many surgeons, especially in the battlefield, believed pain was an essential for the recovery process), to the incredibly parochial Scottish school who believed their method of using chloroform was totally safe, even though it meant ignoring deaths from badly administered anaesthesia.
The only place the book gets a bit dull is where Stratmann is relating case after case in quick succession. This only happens in a couple of chapters, but does get a little tedious. We would have been happy with a couple of examples – but the offending pages are easily skipped through. There’s also something of a surprise that though John Snow, the London anaesthetist, features considerably, there is no mention of Snow’s great achievement – the detective work to understand the outbreak of cholera, detailed in Sandra Hempel’s The Medical Detective. I know this isn’t directly mentioned, but it’s strange that Stratmann bothers to mention that Snow’s work is celebrated at a pub in Broadwick Street, but doesn’t mention cholera.
Altogether a fascinating insight into the origins of a relatively modern aspect of medicine – and one that has made possible all the remarkable operations we take for granted today.
Paperback:  
Review by Jo Reed

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Great Silence – Milan Cirkovic ****

The great 20th century physicist Enrico Fermi didn’t say a lot about extraterrestrial life, but his one utterance on the subject has gone down in legend. He said ‘Where is everybody?’ Given the enormous size and age of the universe, and the basic Copernican principle that there’s nothing special about planet Earth, space should be teeming with aliens. Yet we see no evidence of them. That, in a nutshell, is Fermi’s paradox.

Not everyone agrees that Fermi’s paradox is a paradox. To some people, it’s far from obvious that ‘space should be teeming with aliens’, while UFO believers would scoff at the suggestion that ‘we see no evidence of them’. Even people who accept that both statements are true – including  a lot of professional scientists – don’t always lose sleep over Fermi’s paradox. That’s something that makes Milan Cirkovic see red, because he takes it very seriously indeed. In his own words, ‘it is the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science’.

He points out th…

The Order of Time - Carlo Rovelli ***

There's good news and bad news. The good news is that The Order of Time does what A Brief History of Timeseemed to promise but didn't cover: it attempts to explore what time itself is. The bad news is that Carlo Rovelli does this in such a flowery and hand-waving fashion that, though the reader may get a brief feeling that they understand what he's writing about, any understanding rapidly disappears like the scent of a passing flower (the style is catching).

It doesn't help either that the book is in translation so some scientific terms are mangled, or that Rovelli has a habit of self-contradiction. Time and again (pun intended) he tells us time doesn't exist, then makes use of it. For example, at one point within a page of telling us of time's absence Rovelli writes of events that have duration and a 'when' - both meaningless terms without time. At one point he speaks of a world without time, elsewhere he says 'Time and space are real phenomena.'…

The Happy Brain - Dean Burnett ****

This book was sitting on my desk for some time, and every time I saw it, I read the title as 'The Happy Brian'. The pleasure this gave me was one aspect of the science of happiness that Dean Burnett does not cover in this engaging book.

Burnett's writing style is breezy and sometimes (particularly in footnotes) verging on the whimsical. His approach works best in the parts of the narrative where he is interviewing everyone from Charlotte Church to a stand-up comedian and various professors on aspects of happiness. We get to see the relevance of home and familiarity, other people, love (and sex), humour and more, always tying the observations back to the brain.

In a way, Burnett sets himself up to fail, pointing out fairly early on that everything is far too complex in the brain to really pin down the causes of something as diffuse as happiness. He starts off with the idea of cheekily trying to get time on an MRI scanner to study what his own brain does when he's happy, b…