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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.

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Review by Jo Reed

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