August 2015 Business History: Dr. Samuel Guthrie

A medical pioneer

Dr. Samuel Guthrie, a surgeon during the War of 1812, discovered chloroform, a popular 19th century anesthetic, in 1831. His house is pictured at left and below, a portrait of the doctor. Photo from Watertown Daily Times archives.

Dr. Samuel Guthrie, a surgeon during the War of 1812, discovered chloroform, a popular 19th century anesthetic, in 1831. His house is pictured at left and below, a portrait of the doctor. Photo from Watertown Daily Times archives.

Sackets’ Dr. Samuel Guthrie discovered chloroform

By Lenka Walldroff, NNY Business

Maybe it’s something in the water? That’s one possible explanation for the long list of entrepreneurs and inventors who have called Jefferson County home. Safety pins, bed springs, tile drains, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (better known as the S.P.C.A.), and the concept of the five and dime were all invented or created within Jefferson County’s borders. Tyler Coverlets are native to the county as are percussion caps and a mechanism for their ignition which made flintlock muskets obsolete. But perhaps one of the best known inventions is that of chloroform.

Chloroform was a popular 19th century anesthetic discovered by Dr. Samuel Guthrie of Sackets Harbor. Until Dr. Guthrie’s discovery in 1831, the anesthetic of choice among surgeons was a combination of herbal extractions and opiates. The formularies were not standardized, however, and these sedatives were bitterly denounced as either being too weak to be effective or too strong, resulting in the death of the patient. While nitrous oxide and some other chemical anesthetics had been discovered before 1831, they were not used in surgical applications until almost 1850. In this context, the discovery of chloroform almost two decades before other anesthetics were popularized was a windfall for doctors and patients alike.

Samuel Guthrie was born in Brimfield, Mass., in 1782. In 1804, he married Sybil Sexton and together they had four children.

Dr. Samuel Guthrie

Dr. Samuel Guthrie. Photo from Watertown Daily Times archives. 

During the winter of 1810-1811, Mr. Guthrie studied at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of New York, known today as Columbia University, and in January 1815, sat in on medical lectures at the University of Pennsylvania. This was the full extent of his formal medical education. Nevertheless, in 1817 Dr. Guthrie moved his family to the relative wilderness of Northern New York, choosing the village of Sackets Harbor in which to open a medical practice.

Dr. Guthrie discovered chloroform in February 1831. Within months, the process to create chloroform was dually and independently discovered in Europe by a French scientist named Eugène Soubeiran and again one month later by Justus Liebig, a German chemist. The question of which scientist should be credited with the original discovery was debated for most of Dr. Guthrie’s life. What finally settled the debate was an article that Mr. Guthrie had written for Yale University’s chemistry department discussing his successful 1831 experiment.
The article was published in July 1831 and, as it predated the discoveries of both of his European contemporaries, finally settled the question once and for all. In a letter written to his daughter eight months before his death in October 1848, Dr. Guthrie stated that newspapers were only then beginning to give him exclusive credit for the discovery of the anesthetic that was at the time already widely in use.

An excerpt from an article published by a local newspaper shortly after Dr. Guthrie’s 1831 discovery said the following about the experiment: “With the whiskey to the amount of two gallons he purchased at the tavern, Dr. Guthrie added three pounds of chlorinated lime he had been using as a disinfectant round the henhouse. Great fortitude and self-denial on Dr. Guthrie’s part were necessary, it is said, before he could bring himself to the point of consenting to spoil so much excellent whiskey. But resistance and courage won.”

The article goes on to describe the distillation process in detail. An interesting side note: in addition to his work as a physician, Dr. Guthrie also was an accomplished distiller. While today the professions of physician and distiller may seem incongruous, during the 19th century liquor was commonly used to treat ailments of all varieties, making the distillation of spirits a convenient skill for any doctor. There is no doubt that Dr. Guthrie’s home distilling was not entirely for medical purposes as he was reputed to have brewed an alcohol that was unequaled in all of Jefferson County, as much enjoyed by the healthy as the sick. A replica of the still Dr. Guthrie used for the distillation of chloroform is currently in the collection of the Jefferson County Historical Society.

With the independent discovery of chloroform in Europe only a few months after Dr. Guthrie’s successful February 1831 experiment – and apparently again a decade later in Boston as news traveled slowly in the early 19th century — its use in medical procedures on both sides of the Atlantic spread rapidly. By the 1840s chloroform was widely used to numb the pain of childbirth and, in fact, was considered so safe that it was used by Queen Victoria of England during the birth of her last two children.

Eventually, however, as some of the side effects became known — including its toxicity — at higher doses, ether and nitrous oxide replaced chloroform.

Lenka P. Walldroff is former curator of collections for the Jefferson County Historical Museum. She is a former museum specialist and conservator at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. She lives in Jefferson County with her husband and two children. Business history is a monthly feature from the archives of the Watertown Daily Times. Visit watertown to access digital archives since 1988, or stop by the Times, 260 Washington St., Watertown to research materials in our library that date back to the 1800s.