March 24, 1876 was a historic day both in the world of science and the world of entertainment. That’s when a man who would become a legend in both entered this world. Born as Erich Weiss, he would make his mark as Harry Houdini. I’m into magic and I’m into science, so I’m obviously a fan. But I have another reason to be interested in the most famous magician of all time. Harry Houdini’s name will forever be linked with McGill University!
As recorded in numerous biographies, it was J. Gordon Whitehead, a McGill student, who delivered the blow that led to the death of the man whose name has become synonymous with magic. It was on October 22, 1926 during a visit to Houdini’s dressing room at the Princess theatre in Montreal, that Whitehead asked about the magician’s claim of being able to withstand any punch to the stomach. Somewhat distracted, Houdini grunted a yes, at which point Whitehead let loose with a flurry of punches. Although he was an in excellent physical shape, as execution of his legendary escapes demanded, Harry had not flexed his stomach muscles properly for the onslaught. The man who had pulled off stunning escapes from straight jackets, handcuffs and sealed coffins could not escape the effects of a ruptured appendix. Still, he managed to travel to Detroit, his next venue, where he had to be hospitalized, finally succumbing on the most appropriate day for a magician to make his final exit, Halloween!
While the Whitehead connection has been well publicized, there is another Houdini link to McGill that is virtually unknown. The Osler Library of Medicine at the university is home to a historic pamphlet, “Account of a new anesthetic agent, as a substitute for sulphuric ether in surgery and midwifery,” authored by Scottish physician James Young Simpson and dated November 12, 1847. One of only two surviving such pamphlets, it records the first-ever use of chloroform as an anesthetic!
James Simpson was a Professor of Midwifery, yes, you read that correctly, at Edinburgh University. He was dedicated to easing labour pains for women, and in 1846 was thrilled to hear of William Morton’s successful induction of ether anesthesia at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Within months Simpson was experimenting with ether, sometimes supplemented with “ergot of rye.” Ergot is a fungus that produces lysergic acid, a chemical relative of LSD. That must have added another dimension to labour! But ether sometimes caused bronchial irritation and had a disagreeable and persistent smell to boot. So Simpson decided to look for an ether substitute. “I have tried upon myself and others the inhalation of different other volatile fluids,” he reported, “with the hope that some of them might be found to possess the advantages of ether, without its disadvantages.”
Simpson’s experiments were not the epitome of science. He and his friends filled glass tumblers with different volatile liquids, inhaled the vapours, and waited for something to happen. And with chloroform it did! As an observer described, “unwarranted hilarity seized the party, they became very bright-eyed, very happy and very loquacious…a moment more, and then all was quiet…a chorus of snores soon filled the air..on awakening, they expressed delight with this new agent, and its inhalation was repeated many times that night until the supply of chloroform was exhausted.” “This is far stronger and better than ether,” Simpson concluded.
Indeed, far less chloroform than ether was needed to produce an anesthetic effect, its action was more rapid, it was pleasant smelling, and required no special inhaler for administration. A chloroform moistened handkerchief held over the nose and mouth did the trick! Unlike ether, chloroform was not flammable, a decided advantage in days when surgery was often performed by candlelight in rooms heated with a fireplace. An impressed Simpson immediately began to use chloroform in his obstetrics practice. The first mother who gave birth under chloroform was so thankful for the pain-free delivery that she named her baby Anaesthesia!
The introduction of chloroform in childbirth was not without controversy. Clergymen objected, pointing out that God had told Eve that “in sorrow shalth though bring forth children.” Simpson cleverly retorted with the biblical account of God having cast a deep sleep upon Adam before removing his rib to create Eve. God, he claimed, was obviously in favour of anesthesia. There were safety concerns as well, especially after fifteen year old Hannah Greener died during a procedure to remove an in-grown toenail. But when Queen Victoria’s personal physician, Dr. John Snow, administered chloroform to her highness as she gave birth to Prince Leopold in 1857, the chloroform issue was settled. Surely if chloroform was good enough for the Queen, it was good enough for all. It didn’t take long for chloroform to become the most fashionable anesthetic in England. And magicians took note!
Conjurers are clever performers, always looking to add a bit of novelty to an act. And for “Dr. Lynn,” a travelling magician in America, that novelty was chloroform. His famous illusion was “Paligenesia,” in which an apparently chloroformed man was cut apart and then pieced back together. The secret to the illusion was “black art.” Assistants dressed in black worked against a black background, “cutting off” limbs by masking them with a black cloth. The supposed use of chloroform just added a little theatre to the proceedings. Onlookers were amazed, especially young Erich Weiss, who was absolutely mesmerized. Then and there he decided that his destiny was the stage.
Years later, Erich, having taken the name Houdini, bought the illusion from Lynn’s son and presented it himself. Familiarity with black art came in especially handy when Houdini launched a second career, exposing the methods fake mediums used to convince the gullible that they were communicating with the spirit world. Trumpets floated in mid air and “ectoplasm” appeared in the darkness of the séance room, often through the magic of black art.
To further his campaign for critical thinking, whenever he performed in a city with a university, Houdini would ask to speak to the students about the importance of arriving at conclusions based on evidence, not on hearsay or anecdote. His last such lecture, just days before his death, was delivered at McGill in the student union building, now the McCord Museum. That museum, I think, should have a permanent Houdini display, perhaps even including the original chloroform pamphlet that was so instrumental in launching the career of one of the greatest entertainers and promoters of critical thinking the world has ever seen.