Chloroform Used as Sleeping Aid?


Chloroform for sleep (9)

When Michael Jackson died a years ago most of us thought it was pretty odd the methods he used so he could sleep. This week I have read many articles about the use of chloroform years ago as a sleep aid. Even in the Tintin graphic novels Tintin gets chloroformed many times during the series, sometimes even by accident. One could say it is his most formidable foe. Queen Victoria also used chloroform while giving birth to one of her children since it eased the pain.


Died, at Pakenham on the 30th March 1890, John Jamieson, M.D., aged 39.

On Sunday, word reached Perth of the death of Dr. Jamieson of Pakenham, cousin to Robert Jamieson of this place.    A dispatch to the Press dated Sunday gave the following particulars:  Dr. Jamieson of Pakenham, nephew of Joseph Jamieson, M.P. for North Lanark, was found dead in bed at the (unreadable word) hotel here this (Sunday) morning.

He retired at 10:00 last night in good health and spirits.  The deceased suffered for years from insomnia and nervousness and was in the habit of using chloroform to produce sleep.  When found, his face was covered with a towel saturated with chloroform and a bottle of the fluid was standing on the dressing table half empty.

Jamieson was a skillful physician and very popular and his death is deeply regretted.  I’ve checked Wikipedia, and it shows that 10 mL (14.8 gram) is actually enough for you to have a death due to respiratory or cardiac arrest. How skilled a physician was he, or did he become a chloroform  addict?


Historical Fact

The medicinal use of chloroform was pioneered in 1847  by the Scottish physician Sir James Young Simpson (1811-1870) [shown left]. He used chloroform as a general anaesthetic. This induced the loss of consciousness necessary for painless surgery. Chloroform was non-flammable and relatively rapid at producing anaesthesia. These advantages allowed chloroform to replace ether (C4H10O) as the most commonly used anaesthetic.

A glass of water containing small traces of chloroform. Image take from effects of chloroform inhalation became more serious as the dose was increased. These effects were divided into 5 stages:

  1. The patient became insensible but retained consciousness.
  2. The patient entered a lethargic state in which some pain could be felt.
  3. The patient was physically incapable and could feel no pain.
  4. The patient exhibited strenuous breathing and complete muscle relaxation.
  5. The patient suffered an (often fatal) paralysis of the chest muscles.

Stage 3 was recommended for most surgical procedures. Contrary to popular belief, it was very difficult to chloroform a patient to that extent. A skilled anaesthetist could take 5 minutes to render a patient suitable for surgery.

Despite being an effective anaesthetic, chloroform had several disadvantages. The quantity of chloroform required to differentiate stage 3 from stage 5 (above) was small. Great skill was required to administer chloroform safely as the fatal dose was only ~30 ml. Even if the patient survived the operation, ‘delayed chloroform poisoning’ could lead to problems such as liver damage [7]. Chloroform is now regarded as a possible cause of cancer [1]. The clinical use of chloroform decreased with the discovery of safer general anaesthetics such as Halothane and Desflurane [7].


About lindaseccaspina

Before she laid her fingers to a keyboard, Linda was a fashion designer, and then owned the eclectic store Flash Cadilac and Savannah Devilles in Ottawa on Rideau Street from 1976-1996. She also did clothing for various media and worked on “You Can’t do that on Television”. After writing for years about things that she cared about or pissed her off on American media she finally found her calling. She is a weekly columnist for the Sherbrooke Record and documents history every single day and has over 6500 blogs about Lanark County and Ottawa and an enormous weekly readership. Linda has published six books and is in her 4th year as a town councillor for Carleton Place. She believes in community and promoting business owners because she believes she can, so she does.

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