May 13, 2013
The Chemistry of Chloroform
Chloroform is a simple molecule. A single carbon atom bonded to three chlorine atoms and one atom of hydrogen (Chloroform). It was discovered by three researchers from different countries, all separately, around 1831. The only researcher among them who was a chemist by profession was Justus von Liebig, the German giant of logical and organic chemistry. The other two researchers were a pharmacist and one a physician (Production).
Having been relied on for years as an opium and alcohol for pain relief, the introduction of diethyl ether as an anesthetic in 1846 was a revelation for the medical profession. However, ether produced undesirable after effects such as nausea and vomiting. Chloroform began to be used by British physicians as a more pleasant alternative in the late 1840s. It soon became exceptionally popular, due to the combination of two factors: a paper describing the exact procedure for its use, published in the Lancet medical journal in 1847 by Scottish doctor James Young Simpson. Soon after being published, Queen Victoria insisted on using chloroform while giving birth to Prince Leopold in 1853.
As the use of chloroform increased, the news of unexplained deaths started appearing rapidly. It turned out that chloroform has a much lower therapeutic index than ether, which is to say that the difference between the dose needed to produce the anesthetic effect and the dose needed to cause cardiac arrest is much smaller. The use of chloroform as an anesthetic saw a sudden decline, as chloroform does come with its share of toxicity. An oral dose of 10 milliliters can cause death due to cardiac or respiratory arrest. In 1870, an analysis of 80,000 operations performed with the aid of chloroform showed that the risk of a patient dying was 1 in 2500. In comparison, using ether resulted in only 1 death for every 23,000 operations. By 1875, the British...
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