Hannah Greener, a 15 year-old girl from Winlaton, can claim for both herself and her home town a most undesirable of medical firsts. For this unfortunate young lady was the first person in the world to die after having received a chloroform anaesthetic – for the removal, would you believe, of a toenail.
At the time of her death in January 1848, chloroform was new to the scene as regards anaesthetics – previously, ether would have been the norm. In fact, when Miss Greener stepped forward somewhat gingerly with her seriously in-growing toenails, it was precisely during this ‘changeover period’. In late 1847, ether was used on her to remove the nail of her left big toe (at Newcastle Infirmary); then a few weeks later she was back under the knife – this time at her home in Winlaton – to have the less serious right big toenail detached.
And so Dr Meggison and Dr Lloyd set about the operation. A teaspoon of chloroform was poured onto a handkerchief which was then held to her mouth. An incision was made, and she flinched – so a little more chloroform was administered. The patient then turned a funny colour, spluttered and expired. All attempts at resuscitation failed – the whole process taking little more than two minutes.
The resultant inquest (at the New Inn, Winlaton), concluded that death had most probably been caused by congestion of the lungs – a known side effect of the use of chloroform. The doctors were thus exonerated and young Hannah Greener was laid to rest in Winlaton churchyard.
In 1911, however, medical experiments suggested that the death was most probably due to fatal cardiac arrhythmia (ventricular fibrillation). This would place the point of death at the moment the incision was made, which would have caused a fatal hormonal surge to the chloroform-affected heart.
Debate over which was the best and safest anaesthetic on the market raged for many years after Hannah Greener’s death. Chloroform was very popular in many countries for a very long time, though – until the discovery of barbiturate-based concoctions in the 1940s.