No, the first baby born under anaesthesia wasn't named Anaesthesia

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According to a recent post that's gone viral among science and history nerds, the first baby born to a mother under anaesthesia named her baby Anaesthesia. It's an amusing fun fact. But unfortunately, it's too good to be true. Anaesthesia was reportedly a nickname sometimes used by the doctor who delivered the baby girl in 1847, but her real name was Wilhelmina.

From the Chirurgeon's Apprentice blog:

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.


A 2009 issue of the journal Anesthesiology acknowledges that this myth existed for decades and obviously is still circulating today. But it presents a few pieces of compelling evidence for why it's simply not true.

First, Dr. Simpson never mentions this little fun fact in anything he ever publishes, nor in any private correspondence that we're aware of. The first mention of this myth appears in print in a 1896 biography of the doctor. But perhaps most importantly, the son of the woman who was supposedly named Anaesthesia corrected the record in 1948, explaining that his mother's name was Wilhelmina.

Above, we see Wilhelmina Carstairs or "Baby Anaesthesia," as a teenager on the left, and the doctor who delivered her, Dr. James Young Simpson, on the right.

From Ray J. Defalque and Amos J. Wright in the September 2009 issue of the journal Anesthesiology:

Allegedly the grateful mother christened her child "Anaesthesia"; and Anaesthesia, when 17, sent her photograph to Simpson, who proudly placed it over his desk. The source of that story seems to be Simpson's biography published in 1896 by his daughter Eve. Simpson certainly never mentioned the fact in his abundant publications or correspondence.

The son of the "Chloroform Baby" disposed of that story in a 1948 letter he sent to the Scottish newspaper The Scotsman. He explained that Simpson's parturient had been Jane Carstairs, the wife of Dr. William Carstairs, a physician retired from the Indian Medical Service and living in Cupar, Fife. She had come to Edinburgh to be under Simpson's care. Her child was baptized Wilhelmina on Christmas day, 1847. Wilhelmina married in 1868 and died in 1910. "Anaesthesia" and "St. Anaesthesia" were affectionate nicknames Simpson had given the baby.


Images: Photo purporting to show Wilhelmina Carstairs or "Baby Anaesthesia" (1847-1910) via the journal of Anesthesiology; Dr. James Young Simpson (1811-1870) via Wikipedia

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