In the spring of 1853 Queen Victoria was 34 years old and pregnant with her fourth child. Her first three children had been born at Buckingham Palace with her personal physician James Clark in attendance. The fourth child was to be born on the morning of April 7, 1853 in much the same circumstances except one – the use of chloroform that
produced an uncomplicated and completely painless childbirth that electrified the entire nation of Great Britain and helped push a still little known medical procedure into public consciousness – the use of anesthesia.
Although the exact details of the first use of anesthesia are still controversial, there is little doubt that ether was being used in the United States in the late 1840′s in Boston, Massachusetts and Hartford, Connecticut. It was sufficiently discussed in medical circles that by 1847 apothecaries in London were trying to sell it directly to the British public.
James Snow was an obscure and not very successful London physician who was introduced to ether in this manner. He began studying the effects of ether and chloroform and how much would be required to produce insensibility to pain and to render a patient unconscious. He also hit upon the then novel idea of intermittently dosing the chloroform (his preferred anesthetic), starting the anesthetic with 60 drops and then giving 18 drops for subsequent discomfort or distress.
Even though Snow had been experimenting with or actually administering anesthesia for seven years, it came as a shock when he was summoned to Buckingham Palace in early April, 1853. Waiting for him was Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert and a German physician Baron Stockmar. The Prince Consort was astonishingly well informed about anesthesia, having read all of Snow’s published papers. Albert questioned Snow for more than an hour about this new technique and possible complications. Apparently satisfied by the answers he received, Albert asked Snow to remain at the ready for the impending royal birth.
Queen Victoria went into labor on the morning of April 7, 1853. As her physicians readied her for the birth of Prince Leopold, John Snow positioned a handkerchief moistened with 30 drops of chloroform over her nose and mouth. The Queen had an immediate response to it. Over the next fifty three minutes he reapplied the anesthesia fifteen times, using between 15 and 20 drops each time. The birth was without complication and the child was pronounced healthy, although at the time no one knew that he was afflicted with hemophilia.
When accounts of Queen Victoria’s labor anesthesia reached the general public, John Snow became an instant sensation and was much in demand by the social elite of London.