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Anesthesia during labor? Thank Queen Victoria.

The effects of liquid chloroform on Sir J. Y. Simpson and his friends. (1840s)Wellcome Library, London

Childbirth without an epidural? For many women the idea isn’t pleasant, though before the mid-19th century there was no alternative. An entertaining post on the medical history blog The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice recently looked at the halting introduction of anesthesia for labor, and how it may have taken a queen to move the practice into mainstream medicine.

The first use of anesthesia in labor took place in 1847 (a year after a Boston dentist had performed the first public demonstration of general anesthesia), under the direction of a Scottish obstetrician named James Young Simpson. The drug of choice was chloroform, and the first baby delivered under its influence was named Anaesthesia.

News of the chloroform birth quickly reached Queen Victoria, who was in the midst of her sixth pregnancy. The queen was tempted to use the drug for her own labor, as the blog explains it, but when a pregnant 15-year-old died almost immediately after inhaling the chemical, the royal medical staff decided it was too risky.


Six years and two royal pregnancies later, the time was right. On April 7, 1853, at Buckingham Palace, Queen Victoria inhaled anesthesia and delivered Prince Leopold. Afterward she extolled “that blessed Chloroform...soothing, quieting, and delightful beyond measure”—and, in a testament to the power of a celebrity endorsement, the public quickly began clamoring for painless childbirth.

Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at kshartnett18@gmail.com.