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Plaster copy of infant’s skull, England, c. 1900-1921

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In 1847, physician Sir James Young Simpson first delivered a baby using ether as an anaesthetic. This is a plaster copy of the skull of that child born to a mother feeling no pain. The medical establishment initially had reservations about anaesthetics. Doctors worried about the link between pain and the muscular contractions that make birth possible. They also worried about the effect of the powerful chemical on the infant’s health. For some, pain was ‘natural’ and divinely ordained. However, the work of Simpson and fellow pioneers led to its acceptance. Ether was replaced by its safer chemical relative chloroform. Queen Victoria took chloroform, administered by John Snow, during the birth of her eighth child in 1853. This further popularised anaesthetic use. This copy was probably made in the early 1900s. It was presented by the Obstetrical Department of Liverpool University in 1921. Little is known about the child, but the size and appearance of the skull suggests he or she died either during the procedure or shortly after. Anaesthetic use has been refined, but it has always been problematic. The natural childbirth movement questioned the practice in the late 1960s.

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    Glossary: skull

    The skeleton of the head of a vertebrate animal, including the brain case, or cranium, and the bones and cartilages of the face and mouth. The skull can be subdivided into two parts: the cranium and the mandible. The human skull is made up from 22 bones.

    Glossary: anaesthetic

    An agent that causes insensitivity to pain. Applied to either the whole body (general anaesthetic) or a particular area or region (local anaesthetic).

    Glossary: obstetrics

    A branch of medicine dealing with the care of women. This care occurs during pregnancy, childbirth, and the period of recovery from childbirth.