‘If it is our mission
to alleviate suffering
as well as to preserve life
there should be no conscientious restraint
and if God has benevolently given us means
to mitigate the agony
it is His evident intention
that we should employ it
which requires no special kind of instrument –
even the perfume is not unpleasant
with ten to twenty inspirations being enough,
so that sleep speedily follows –
and on one of the first occasions
after the influence had passed off
it was a matter of no small difficulty
to persuade the astonished mother
that the baby presented to her
was her own living child.’
About this poem
To celebrate the Quincentenary of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, twenty-one Scottish poets were commissioned by the Scottish Poetry Library to write poems inspired by the College’s collections and work. Like surgeons they have used ‘the hand that sees’, but in this case the writing hand that acts at the prompting of insight and imagination. The poems and their comments, alongside photographs of items that inspired them, were published in The Hand that Sees: Poems for the quincentenary of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, edited by Stewart Conn, and published by the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh in association with the Scottish Poetry Library in 2005.
It is probable that I chose this early chloroform ‘dropper’ bottle because I worked as an anaesthetist for many years. I am also aware of what a landmark adequate anaesthesia was in the development of surgery and obstetrics, in that it not only relieved suffering but enabled the operator to work with far greater freedom. It thus stimulated the development of operative techniques.
I researched some of the original literature, especially the writings of Simpson himself on the use of chloroform. I have used some of his expressions from two separate publications dating from the year of the first use of chloroform, 1848. These have been re-woven to try to make an expressive pattern, also to make explicit something of his voice, the concerns of his era and the extraordinary impact of the discovery of practical anaesthesia, which had occurred in America two years earlier with the use of ether.
This poem is also part of a sequence of poems constructed in this way, which I call ’texturalist’, in that they make a fresh pattern or texture out of previously existing texts. Thus the final result, if inevitably having something of my own, is a tribute to the original and the voice of someone else, and is a way of exploring possibilities beyond my own unaided invention.