Books

Christine Ball
The Chloroformist

Anaesthetists are mysterious creatures. It’s in part because of how they disappear in our memories, undoubtedly owing to the oblivion they administer at our bedsides. When we wake up, they’re always gone; only the surgeon is there to answer for what has been done. The anaesthetist’s art is mysterious, too. While it’s said that we’re “put to sleep”, the effect of a general anaesthetic is more akin to coma. The sleep of anaesthesia is deep. Resembling death, how can it not be fascinating?

Christine Ball’s The Chloroformist taps into this fascination. It takes the form of a traditional biography of Joseph Clover, an Englishman who began his career as a surgeon in 1841 before becoming a pioneer in the emerging field of anaesthesia. As an anaesthetist herself, the author’s credentials are compelling. Also compelling are the surgical case studies documented in Clover’s journals, with which Ball – showing her nous as a writer – often begins chapters.

Clover began his career as a surgeon in the pre-anaesthetic era, when operations – and the unsanitary conditions under which they were performed – resembled scenes parodied in Horrible Histories. Clover operated on patients who would be screaming and thrashing and even attempting to flee as a limb was amputated, a breech baby delivered or a bladder stone removed. That last procedure, called a lithotomy, was particularly gruesome. It involved “securing the terrified patient on their back with their knees pressed up against their chest – held or strapped firmly – while the surgeon cut through the perineum into the bladder”. Patients and surgeons alike required nerves of steel.

Clover’s treatment of maladies from cobra bite to ingrown toenails, even after the introduction of anaesthesia, retains a gruesome fascination. The book also holds other less macabre attractions. Clover’s life intersects with the famous, including Florence Nightingale and Napoleon III. We also learn about the development of anaesthesia: from mesmerism to ether to chloroform to nitrous oxide to cocaine. The ways in which the development of anaesthesia facilitates the development of surgery is likewise interesting, as is the concern of contemporaries that anaesthesia destroyed the appropriate “silence and solemnity” of the operating theatre, allowing doctors to converse across insensate bodies.

This book, however, is essentially a rigorously researched and presented biography of a man unknown to many outside the medical world – though it may set you thinking about all kinds of things, from childhood memories of laughing gas to the anaesthetic death of Michael Jackson.

Maria Takolander

Melbourne University Press, 328pp, $34.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 14, 2021 as "The Chloroformist, Christine Ball".

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Reviewer: Maria Takolander