Shropshire History

Henry Hickman


to Index


Image result for henry hill hickman


Henry Hill Hickman was born into a farming family at Lady Halton, near Ludlow, as the 5th of 13 children. He began his medical training at the Edinburgh Medical School in 1819 when he was 16 but left without a degree in 1820. He was admitted as a Member of the Royal College of Surgeons in London the same year and began his medical career as a general practitioner in Ludlow in 1821. He developed an interest in anaesthesia and in 1823 began some experiments on animal. He would make the animal insensible by almost suffocating it with carbon dioxide, then amputate a part of the animal to see whether it could feel pain under this anaesthesia. Later scientists used nitrous oxide, ether and chloroform to achieve similar effects. He proposed such suspended animation for use on humans but this was never tried.


He moved to Shifnal in 1824, where he wrote up his work on anaesthesia and sent it to Thomas Knight of Downton Castle, one of the Presidents of the Royal Society. He had hoped that the information would reach Sir Humphry Davy but it is doubtful whether it did. He became disillusioned by the lack of response and was offended by an article in the 1826 Lancet entitled “Surgical Humbug” that ruthlessly criticised his work. He thus moved to France in 1828 and sent a paper to King Charles X. The paper was forwarded to the Academie Royale de Medicine and a committee was set up to investigate Hickman's proposal for painless surgical operations on humans. It attracted little support and the only support he got was from Napoleon's field surgeon, Baron Dominique-Jean Larrey. The latter had noticed that wounded soldiers felt no pain when numbed by cold, Hickman met a similar response in France to that he had received in England. Upset at his lack of success, he returned to England and set up a new practice in Tenbury Wells. A year later, Hickman died at the early age of 30 of tuberculosis and was buried at Bromfield. Unappreciated at the time of his death, he is now recognised as one of the pioneers of anaesthesia.


He had the right idea about inhalation anaesthesia but picked the wrong agent. Carbon dioxide does induce unconsciousness but the gas often causes panic attacks and in large quantities it can kill.  His experiments would appear rather gruesome and cruel to us today but back then people did not tend to regard animals in the same affection.


Experiment 1 – he took a puppy a month old and placed it on a piece of wood surrounded by water over which he placed a glass cover so as to prevent the access of atmospheric air. In 10 minutes, it showed signs of uneasiness, in 12 minutes respiration became difficult and in 17 minutes ceased altogether. At 18 minutes he cut off one of the puppy’s ears. There was no bleeding and respiration soon returned, the animal not appearing to feel any pain. In 3 days the ear was perfectly healed.


Experiment 2 – he took the same puppy 4 days later and exposed it to carbon dioxide gas, in 1 minute respiration ceased. He then cut off the other ear, which bled a little, and as before it did not appear to suffer any pain. In 4 days, the wound had healed. The day after the operation, the puppy seemed to require an additional quantity of food. On being weighted, the puppy was found to have gained 9ounces 1 dram 24 grains in 9 days. 


Experiment 3 – he took the same puppy and proceeded as in Experiment 1, respiration being much the same as before. He then cut off the tail and made an incision over the muscles of the loins, through which he passed a ligature and made it tight. The puppy exhibited no uneasiness until the next day, when there was inflammation and suppuration. The ligature came away on the 7th day, the wound healed on 12th and the puppy had remarkably increased in size and was now perfectly well.


Experiment 4 - a mouse was confined under a glass, surrounded by water by means of a small tube a foot long. He passed carbon dioxide gas very slowly

into the glass and respiration ceased in three minutes. He then cut all of its legs off at the first joint and plunged it into a basin of cold water. The animal immediately recovered and ran around the table, apparently without pain. The stumps soon healed and he kept it for a fortnight, after which he set it free.


Experiment 5 - he took an adult dog and exposed it to carbon dioxide gas, quickly prepared and in large quantities. Life appeared to be extinct in about 12 seconds. Animation was suspended for 17 minutes, allowing respiration occasionally to intervene by the application of inflating instruments. He cut off a leg without the slightest appearance of pain to the animal. There was no bleeding from the smaller vessels. The ligature that secured the main artery came away on the 4th day and the dog recovered without showing any uneasiness.


Experiment 6 - he exposed a rabbit to the same gas as in Experiment 5 and cut off both ears. He had a similar result.


Experiment 7 - he filled a glass globe with the gas exhaled from his own lungs and placed a kitten into it. After 20 seconds, he cut off its ears and tail. There was very little bleeding and no appearance of pain from the animal.   


His experiments may appear rather gruesome and cruel to us today but people felt differently about them in those days. In 1930, the Anaesthetic Section of the Royal Society of Medicine unveiled a tablet to Hickman's memory in St Mary’s Church, Bromfield on the anniversary of his burial. A book has been written about Hickman for those wanting more information :-


“Henry Hill Hickman” by WDA Smith, A Padfield, EN Armitage, FE Bennett and PME Drury (editors). Published by the History of Anaesthesia Society, Sheffield. 80 pages, price £12.00. ISBN 0-901100-59-5.