The Chloroformist by Christine Ball

Reviewed by Wendy Lipke

In her book, Christine Ball, anaesthetist at the Alfred Hospital in Melbourne and co-manager of Master of Medicine (Perioperative) at Monash University, delves into the lives of those who were responsible for creating the wonderful partnership between the surgeon and the anaesthetist, which patients experience today when undertaking an operation.  Her thorough research presents, in chronological order, experiences in the life of Thomas Clover and, at the same time, highlights many milestones in the practice of medicine during his lifetime, 1825-1882.

Her inspiration was the discovery of an old casebook, written in beautiful cursive scrip, pressed into a picture frame and then forgotten (1). Inscribed in 1935, almost a hundred years after it was written, it was intended as a contribution to the anaesthetic museum Geoffrey Kaye was establishing. This was where the author came across it.

The casebook belonged to Joseph Thomas Clover and he began writing when he was still a medical student. It contained case notes, lecture notes, operations he had attended, tables, lists of potions and poisons. He became a doctor, physician assistant, surgeon, general practitioner, apothecary, a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, and a highly respected anaesthetist, designing new surgical equipment, and introducing procedures to achieve better outcomes, yet little is known about him.

Christine Ball, Wood Library-Museum Laureate of the History of Anaesthesiology and for 30 years honorary curator at the Geoffrey Kaye Museum of Anaesthetic History, has introduced the reader to a man who led a busy and productive life, his accomplishments masking his constant battle with ill health. At his passing in 1882, his friends and fellow practitioners ‘praised his skills, his careful research, his medical accomplishments, his inventions, his wonderful relationship with patients – but most of all, they expressed a deep, abiding affection for this gently caring man’ (255).

We learn from the author that Joseph Clover set the bar high, and because of his efforts, an entire profession has developed with high standards and expectations and, as a result, excellent outcomes… ‘the continual presence of the anaesthetist, watching over the patient and the surgeon’ (259) ensures the best result possible. That is Joseph Clover’s legacy.

The book is divided into thirteen chapters with forty-three pages of sources and notes followed by a nine-page Index. Towards the middle of the book can be found a dozen pages of black and white photographs relating to Clover’s life. The cover of this publication, The Chloroformist, shows one of the two most famous photographs of Joseph Clover taken to fit the twenty-one inches of space allocated to him for a display at the London International Exhibition of 1862. ‘His monitoring of the patient’s pulse was carefully staged, clearly intended to be a feature of the photograph’ (120). Anaesthetists hold this image up ‘as a shining example of vigilance, of an anaesthetist who set an early example, who always stayed at his patient’s side, watching the pulse and respiration-ever vigilant, always prepared’ (258).

This is not a dry history book. It is a story about people and specifically one man’s contribution to society. The author’s writing style is easy to follow and allows the reader to feel the pain and horror of early operations, experience the every-day lives of exceptional people in the 1800’s, their frustrations at not being able to do enough to save some of their patients, and also feel uplifted when new ideas become reality. Her descriptions of operations and the working of new inventions are detailed and several of the chapters are dedicated to specific medical cases that advanced the knowledge of medicine. This is a book about medical people who ‘had a sense of the big picture, an understanding that there is more to successful surgery than just cutting out the offending part’ (152). Joseph Clover ‘was a very active participant in the world of medicine/surgery where he commanded much respect’ (151).

Reading this book took me back to my earlier years when dressed in the gown, cap and slippers, I walked to the operating theatre to have my tonsils removed. I remember after the chloroform had been administered, the nightmares, often associated with chloroform, that I experienced. It is lovely to know that those days are gone.

The Chloroformist


by Christine Ball

Melbourne University Press



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