Chloroform – Fit for a Queen

Although Queen Victoria and Prince Albert considered anesthesia for the birth of their seventh child, Arthur, they waited for Leopold’s birth in 1853 to ask Doctor John Snow to ease Victoria’s labor delivery with chloroform. The good doctor used a reclining “open-drop” chloroform application for the queen’s treatment rather than the steampunk inhaler he had invented earlier. Queen Victoria approved of the results. Four years later, when her ninth and final child arrived, Dr. Snow and chloroform were again in attendance.

Open-drop method

During the United States’ Civil War (1861-1865), doctors, operating next to bloody mounds of discarded limbs, used chloroform to render soldiers unconscious prior to amputations. The National Museum of Civil War Medicine reports that anesthesia was used in approximately 95% or 80,000 of the war’s surgeries. Chloroform, faster and less flammable than ether, required a high degree of skill and experience to administer in doses small enough to make the patient insensible but not large enough to paralyze the lungs or cause cardiac arrest, both fatal.

Apparently, soldiers weren’t truly asked to “bite the bullet” for pain distraction. Most historians believe that the teeth marks found on battlefield bullets were from pigs tasting the lead slugs as possible appetizers.

Source: National Museum of Civil War Medicine

In February 1864, when Maria Augustina Black visited her son-in-law’s dental office in San Francisco, she must have been pleased to learn that Dr. Galen Burdell used chloroform for pain relief. Lacking the field experience of the Civil War surgeons then operating on the battlefield, Dr. Burdell overdosed his mother-in-law, launching a six-year feud with his father-in-law which culminated in four trials to recover Augusta Black Burdell’s substantial inheritance.

Learn more about the Black and Burdell families in Marriage, Murder, and Betrayal in Nineteenth-Century California.

Published by Jo Haraf

Jo’s poetry and fiction have been published in the California Writers Club Literary Review, Flash Fiction Magazine, and Ragnarok. She edited and co-authored "Journal Across the Plains - 1852" (Fonthill 2020). "Marriage, Murder, and Betrayal in Nineteen Century California" will be published in the fall of 2021. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Pacific University. A popular speaker on the craft of writing, Jo is a proud member of the Historical Novel Society, Biographers International, and the California Writers Club. She lives on Florida's Suncoast with her husband and a scruffy terrier whose adoration sustains her through revisions and rejections.

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