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

I, Mammal - Liam Drew *****

It's rare that a straightforward biology book (with a fair amount of palaeontology thrown in) really grabs my attention, but this one did. Liam Drew really piles in the surprising facts (often surprising to him too) and draws us a wonderful picture of the various aspects of mammals that make them different from other animals. 

More on this in a moment, but I ought to mention the introduction, as you have to get past it to get to the rest, and it might put you off. I'm not sure why many books have an introduction - they often just get in the way of the writing, and this one seemed to go on for ever. So bear with it before you get to the good stuff, starting with the strange puzzle of why some mammals have external testes.

It seems bizarre to have such an important thing for passing on the genes so precariously posed - and it's not that they have to be, as it's not the case with all mammals. Drew mixes his own attempts to think through this intriguing issue with the histor…

Foolproof - Brian Hayes *****

The last time I enjoyed a popular maths book as much as this one was reading Martin Gardner’s Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions as a teenager. The trouble with a lot of ‘fun’ maths books is that they cover material that mathematicians consider fascinating, such as pairs of primes that are only two apart, which fail to raise much excitement in normal human beings. 

Here, all the articles have something a little more to them. So, even though Brian Hayes may be dealing with something fairly abstruse-sounding like the ratio of the volume of an n-dimensional hypersphere to the smallest hypercube that contains it, the article always has an interesting edge - in this case that although the ‘volume’ of the hypersphere grows up to the fifth dimension it gets smaller and smaller thereafter, becoming an almost undetectable part of the hypercube.

If that doesn’t grab you, many articles in this collection aren’t as abstruse, covering everything from random walks to a strange betting game. What'…

Lost Solace (SF) - Karl Drinkwater ****

There was a time when you would be hard pushed to find a science fiction novel with a female main character. As I noted when re-reading Asimov's Foundation, in 189 pages, women appear on just five pages - and they're very much supporting cast. But the majority of new SF novels I've read this year have had female main characters, including The Real Town Murders, Austral and Andy Weir's upcoming Artemis.

That's certainly the case in Karl Drinkwater's engaging Lost Solace. It's really a two hander between military renegade Opal and her ship's AI, Clarissa. There are a few male characters, but they are either non-speaking troops she battles or a major with whom she has a couple of short video conversations. That summary gives an unfair military flavour to the whole thing - in practice, the majority of the action, which is practically non-stop throughout the book, involves Opal trying to survive as she explores a mysterious, apparently abandoned liner in a de…