Nineteenth-Century Disability:  Cultures & Contexts

Under Chloroform



The cariacature shows Henry Thompson weilding an instrument that is knife on one side, pen on the other, standing in front of a table surrounded by papers, a dinner menu, and a skeleton.  The caption reads:  "Great Artist-Surgeon, who is so well able / To point a Pencil and adorn a Table? / First in the Ranks of Men of Light and Leading / Our best Authority on Food and Feeding." "Punch's Fancy Portraits - No. 42. Dr. Henry Thompson." Punch (1881). Courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London under a Creative Commons License (Record no. 1714437).


“Under Chloroform,” an unsigned article on amputation written by surgeon Henry Thompson, was published in the first volume of the popular literary magazine, The Cornhill. At the time, Thompson, a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, specialized in urology and was a consulting surgeon at a workhouse infirmary; two years later he would become full surgeon at University College Hospital (Paton). “Under Chloroform” demonstrates The Cornhill’s editorial mandate to educate its readers on a wide variety of issues, publishing articles by scientists and physicians as well as poems and serial fiction (Kennedy 80). More significantly, however, this article exhibits Victorian ambivalence regarding bodily integrity, that is, bodily wholeness.

After stating that his purpose is to correct incorrect public knowledge about modern amputation, Thompson highlights the high probability of undergoing such an operation, saying, “no one knows how soon his own personal necessities may not be such as to give him the strongest possible interest in its exercise” (500). In doing so, Thompson reminds readers of the transient state of their bodily wholeness, implying that surgery is “absolutely inevitable” (500). As if to increase the reader anxiety this statement produces, Thompson then provides a gruesome account of past methods of amputations. Following this, however, Thompson “soothes [readers’] ruffled nerves” (502) by reassuring readers of modern medicine’s capability to safely restore bodily stability in spite of amputation. To do this, he makes his readers imaginary spectators of modern surgery, rather than imagined recipients of it as before. Doing so palliates reader anxiety about the body, placing medical ignorance and bodily difference upon an unnamed, imaginary patient: “So it is that he who loses the limb knows less about the process than any one concerned; infinitely less, my gentle reader, than you who have shared with us the quiet corner, and have seen all without losing consciousness, or fainting” (504).

Primary Source Text

No doubt all admire the sang-froid and skill, possession of which is necessary to make a good surgical operator — qualities, by the way, which are perhaps more frequently developed by training, than found already existing as a natural inheritance. But it is germane to our purpose to remember that everybody has a direct practical concern in the existence of an available supply of the necessary talent to meet a certain demand on the part of the body politic, for no one knows how soon his own personal necessities may not be such as to give him the strongest possible interest in its exercise: a demand that is absolutely inevitable; — for be assured that, without any wish to alarm you, gentle reader, Mr. Neison will, if requested to make the calculation, inform us at once what the numerical chances are that your own well-proportioned nether limb will, or will not, fall before the surgeon's knife, or that that undoubtedly hard and well-developed cranium may not yet be scientifically explored by “trepan” or “trephine.”[1] He will estimate with unerring certainty the probability (to nine places of decimals, if you demand it) that your own fair person may become the subject of some unpleasing excrescence[2]; and also what the chances are that you must seek the surgeon's aid to remove it. While Mr. Buckle will stoutly maintain, and you will find it hard to gainsay him, that, given the present conditions of existence, a certain ascertainable number of tumours, broken legs, and natural-born deformities will regularly make their appearance every year among the human family. And he will probably add, that it is perfectly within the province of possibility to calculate, if we had all the required data, the exact number of individuals who have the requisite courage to submit to operation; as of those who will not have heart to do so, and who will inevitably die without benefit of surgery; together with the exact percentage to the population of those who will, and who will not, put faith in the blessed boon of chloroform. (500)

[He goes on to describe the roughness of early-amputation, the “patient’s torture” from surgeons using “a red-hot knife” to amputate in the eleventh century or “red-hot irons” or “boiling pitch”[3] to cauterize after surgery in the sixteenth century and then the surgical improvement of ligature to stop bleeding after amputation, introduced to England in the seventeenth century (501-02).]

But enough of this: let us soothe our ruffled nerves by seeing how the thing is done to-day. We will take a quiet post of observation in the area of the operating theatre at one of our metropolitan hospitals, in this year of our Lord 1860. Notice is posted that amputation of the thigh will be performed at 2 o'clock p.m., and we occupy our seat ten minutes before the hour. (502)

[He goes on to describe the operating theatre, the presence of surgeons, tools, and students, the application of the tourniquet to limb to be amputated, and then the smooth operating process itself, which he relates using precise words such as “central axis,” “incision,” and “transfixion” (503) as opposed to the rougher words, such as “dreadful remedies” and “horribly loathsome” (502) used to depict historical amputation above.]

Half an hour hence that patient will regain consciousness, and probably the first observation he makes will be, “I am quite ready for the operation, when is it going to begin?” And it takes no little repetition of the assurance that all is over to make him realize the happy truth. So it is that he who loses the limb knows less about the process than any one concerned; infinitely less, my gentle reader, than you who have shared with us the quiet corner, and have seen all without losing consciousness, or fainting. (504)


[1] A trephine is a surgical hole saw devoted to the removal of tissue or bone; a trepan is a trephine devoted to surgery of the skull.

[2] A tumour or growth.

[3] Boiling tar.


[Thompson, Henry]. “Under Chloroform.” Cornhill. 1.4 (1860): 499-504.



Further Reading

  • Paton, Alex. “Thompson, Sir Henry, first baronet (1820–1904).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, 2010. Online. 12 Feb. 2013 []
  • Kennedy, Meegan. Revising the Clinic: Vision and Representation in Victorian Medical Narrative and the Novel. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2010.


Kylee-Anne Hingston



[Thompson, Henry], “Under Chloroform,” Nineteenth-Century Disability: Cultures & Contexts, accessed July 14, 2024,