‘Did the epidural hurt?’ I ask Rebecca Rideal—editor of The History Vault—one morning as we sit outside the British Library.
‘Not really.’ She hesitates, clearly wanting to say more without divulging too much information. ‘I mean, it’s nothing compared to the labour pains. The hardest part was lying still while the anaesthesiologist administered the needle.’
Rebecca is one of many friends of mine who have now endured the pains of childbirth. Nearly all of them (with the exception of one) did so with the aid of anaesthetics and pain medication. Not one of them regretted it.
Of course, there was a time when women had no choice but to give birth naturally, and often did so while sitting up in a birthing chair. The experience was wrought with dangers, not least the risk of ‘childbed fever’ which claimed the lives of thousands of women, including Henry VIII’s wife, Jane Seymour.
But even if a woman escaped with her life, she couldn’t avoid the pain.
All this changed in November 1847, when Dr James Young Simpson—a Scottish obstetrician—began using chloroform as an anaesthetic. Earlier that year, Simpson started using ether to relieve the pains of childbirth, but he was dissatisfied with the smell, the large quantity needed, and the lung irritation it caused. Ether was also highly explosive, which made it dangerous to use in candlelit rooms heated by fireplaces. It was then that David Waldie, a chemist from Liverpool, recommended chloroform to Simpson.
On the evening of November 4th, Simpson and his two friends experimented with it. At first, they felt very cheerful and talkative. After a short time, they passed out. Impressed with the drug’s potency, Simpson began using chloroform as an anaesthetic, and indeed, the first baby born to a mother under the drug’s influence was named Anaesthesia.
It was soon after this that the Duchess of Sutherland sent a pamphlet on Simpson’s discovery to Queen Victoria who was then in her sixth pregnancy. The Queen’s distaste for pregnancy was well-known. She considered it ‘wretched’ and experienced ‘occasional lowness and a tendency to cry’ after the birth of her first two children. 
Unfortunately, it was also at this time that the first chloroform fatality occurred when 15-year-old Hannah Greener died within 3 minutes of inhaling the chemical. The Queen was hesitant, and decided to forgo the new drug during her delivery of Princess Louise in March 1848. But the labour pains were severe, and so when Victoria became pregnant again a year later, she wrote to the Duchess of Sutherland, enquiring after her daughter who had just given birth using chloroform. Further discussion followed amongst the Royal medical household, but the decision was made once more to abstain despite assurances from the the physician, John Snow, that chloroform was perfectly safe when administered correctly. And so on 1 May 1850, Victoria endured her seventh labour without the aid of anaesthetics.
By 1852—when Victoria became pregnant with Prince Leopold—attitudes towards the drug were beginning to change. Most importantly, the Queen’s husband, Prince Albert, had become an advocate of its usage. Albert, a long-time champion of the sciences and President of the Royal College of Chemistry, had had lengthy discussions with Dr Snow about the administration of chloroform and the distinctions between giving it to patients undergoing surgery (which required full unconsciousness) and women in labour. Wishing to ease his wife’s pains, Albert urged Victoria to submit to the drug.
On 7 April 1853, Snow was summoned to Buckingham Palace. A lot was at stake. If the good doctor were successful in using chloroform to ease the Queen’s delivery, he would silence critics of childbirth anaesthesia and help pave the way to painless labour for women everywhere.
Lucky for Snow, the birth was simple and uncomplicated. Prince Leopold was born within 53 minutes of his administration of the drug, which Victoria described as ‘that blessed Chloroform… soothing, quieting and delightful beyond measure’.  Snow later wrote in his medical casebooks that Queen was ‘very cheerful and well, expressing herself much gratified with the effect of the [drug]’. 
Not everyone was pleased with the outcome, however. Some protested on religious grounds; others for medical reasons. The Lancet questioned the veracity behind claims that the Queen had even used the drug in her last delivery.
A very extraordinary report has obtained general circulation [that]…Her Majesty during the last labour was placed under the influence of chloroform, an agent which has unquestionably caused instantaneous death in a considerable number of cases. Doubts on this subject cannot exist…In no case could it be justifiable to administer chloroform in perfectly ordinary labour…These facts being perfectly well known to the medical world, we could not imagine that anyone had incurred the awful responsibility of advising the administration of chloroform to her Majesty… 
These doubts aside, Queen Victoria’s use of the drug was overwhelmingly lauded, and led to a public fervour for painless childbirth. The editor of the Association Medical Journal called it ‘an event of unquestionable medical importance’, and hoped that this would remove ‘lingering professional and popular prejudice against the use of anaesthesia in midwifery’.  Women everywhere were requesting chloroform to ease their labour pains.
Dr Snow was discreet about the details of that fateful day in Buckingham Palace, though he was questioned often about the event. On one occasion, one of his patients refused to inhale the chloroform he was hopelessly trying to administer lest he tell her ‘what the Queen said, word for word, when she was taking it’. Snow cleverly replied that ‘Her Majesty asked no questions until she had breathed very much longer than you have; and if you will only go in loyal imitation, I will tell you everything’. 
Shortly after the lady gave birth, Snow slipped away, leaving his promise unfulfilled.
Queen Victoria was destined for one final pregnancy. In 1857, she gave birth to her ninth child, Princess Beatrice (pictured below with the entire family). Once again, Dr Snow successfully administered chloroform during the delivery, securing the path to painless childbirth for women everywhere.
1. Roger Fulford (ed.), Dearest Child: Letters between Queen Victoria and the Princess Royal, 1858 – 61 (1964), p. 195, 162. Originally quoted in Stephanie Snow, Blessed Days of Anaesthesia (2008), p. 82.
2. Quoted in Matthew Dennison, The Last Princess: The Devoted Life of Queen Victoria’s Youngest Daughter (2007), p. 2.
4. Lancet I (1853), p. 453.
5. Association Medical Journal (1853), p. 318.
6. John Snow, On Chloroform and other Anaesthetics (1858), p. xxxi. Originally quoted in Snow, Blessed Days of Anaesthesia, p. 88.
*This article is dedicated to my dear friend, Marla Ginex, who any day will give birth to her second daughter. Good luck and lots of love.