The Chloroformist is the story of Joseph Clover and the invention of anaesthesia

  • The Chloroformist, by Christine Ball. Melbourne University Press, $34.99.

In school physics, we met Maxwell and Faraday and Kelvin; our English classes introduced us to Dickens and Hardy, Keats and Coleridge. These were just some of the bigger boulders in the mountain that was British genius in the years when Victoria sat on the throne. But we heard nothing about the people who were, at the same time, changing medicine, and in particular what passed for surgery. Let us take a look.

It is 1841. A young girl is wrapped tightly in a sheet, gripped by strong pairs of hands, and stood near window light. The surgeon acts quickly: a gag to prize her mouth open, then a scalpel to the back of her throat to cut a piece from her swollen tonsils. There is pain and blood and screams, as the doctor leaves with his 16-year old assistant. Not much more than a century later, this reviewer underwent the same procedure without the pain or screams, thanks in large measure to the wonder of chloroform and the later work of that 16-year old kid.

His name was Joseph Clover and, on the basis of this book, he deserves to be named with Faraday and Keats and the other geniuses mentioned above. The only aid for surgery in those days was the uncertain lottery of mesmerism, probably related to today's hypnotism. Then ether came along and in 1846, a man was etherised and had a leg amputated painlessly, the process carried out carefully, watched and discussed - probably noisily - by many other doctors and surgeons and a small group of students that included the now 21-year-old Clover.

This book is a history of anaesthesia, with Clover as the central character. Even though he was qualified as a surgeon, he seems to have been the first person to concentrate solely on his work as an anaesthetist. He developed and invented a number of pieces of equipment for the administration of chloroform, in many cases combined with ether or nitrous oxide or both. The author, herself an anaesthetist at the Alfred Hospital in Melbourne, stresses his gentleness and the importance he placed on putting the patient at ease.

That there is a central character makes what is a highly technical book more readable, though there are parts of the story where you may find yourself employing speed-reading. The book is greatly improved by a number of diagrams and pictures of pieces of equipment, many developed by Clover. Some of the other names mentioned in the story, are familiar, but it would be interesting to know whether some of the others - Spencer Wells for example, or John Snow - are more widely known among the medical community.

Detailed and sometimes verging on hero worship, this is the story of a man who deserves his own Victorian boulder.

This story Taking pain away: the invention of anaesthesia first appeared on The Canberra Times.