Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Holy Shit, Chloroform!

Despite being pretty much obsolete for its main intended use, chloroform maintains a solid foothold in our collective cultural awareness. And you know why. The trope of the chloroform-soaked rag has been so thoroughly woven into the fabric of crime fiction that it's the first thing we think of when we plan imagine a kidnapping.

What? There are perfectly legitimate reasons to wear a balaclava in late September.

In fact, it's such an integral trope that most of us will never even think about chloroform in any other context. Admit it, when you saw the title of this post you thought it was going to be all about kidnapping, didn't you? Well, you're not entirely wrong, but if you look closer at the history of chloroform, you'll find yourself in one of those situations where the rug gets pulled out from under you.

The problem with our kidnapping imagery is that chloroform doesn't work that way. Well it does, but not nearly that fast. You can rest easy with the knowledge that, were a criminal to approach you with a chloroform-soaked rag, he would have to hold it up to your face for five to ten solid minutes before you became unconscious.

Which means this scene is just starting to get awkward.

So where did the "Instant KO" myth come from? This guy:
Believe it or not, not a kidnapper.

That's Sir James Young Simpson, a Scottish obstetrician known for innovating new equipment and treatments to help advance the medical field. Simpson had a couple of colleagues over one day and decided to do a little experiment with some chloroform he happened to have. To make a long story short, the gathering ended up being a bit of a rager. His two human guinea pigs got first loopy, then giddy, then unconscious.

Simpson was thrilled with this discovery, and just three days later chloroform entered the medical scene as an anesthetic. His excitement at the relative speed with which his friends passed out led him to exaggerate a bit, which led the general public to believe that chloroform could cause instant sleepytimes. From there, writers (and disappointed criminals) took the ball and ran with it, and a trope was born.

As for its medical use, chloroform lost a bit of favor when it turned out that 1 in every 3,000 patients dosed with the drug ended up dead. Safer methods arose, especially nitrous oxide, and chloroform dropped out of the real world, taking refuge in fiction. Today, it's mostly used in chemistry labs or as a solvent.
Which is way less exciting.

So remember, if someone jumps from an alley and forces chloroform into your face, you're probably just going to end up a little frightened and a little high. At least from the drug, I make no further guarantees about the criminal.

Holy shit.

"Chickamauga 2009, Chloroform" by Kevin King - Flickr: Chickamauga 2009, Chloroform. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

"Balaclava 3 hole black" by Tobias "ToMar" Maier. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Still image from Charmed, S2E7: "Give Me a Sign"

"Simpson James Young signature picture" by Henry Laing Gordon - Frontispiece of Sir James Young Simpson and Chloroform (1811-1870). Licensed under Public Domain via Commons

"Senior chemistry lab at Mother's International School, Delhi" by Prateek Karandikar - Own work. Licensed under GFDL via Wikimedia Commons