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Biographical entry Furnell, Michael Cudmore (1829 - 1888)

CIE 1886; MRCS July 18th 1851; FRCS June 9th 1870; MD St Andrews 1877.

24 May 1888
Monte Carlo
General surgeon


Educated at St Bartholomew's Hospital, and whilst still a student was led to make some personal experiments in regard to the production of anaesthesia, in consequence of the promulgation of Dr Morton's remarkable discovery of the effects of ether. Furnell came upon a bottle labelled chloric ether, which he found from trials on himself was an anaesthetic, and in the spring of 1847 he gave this to Holmes Coote (qv), who actually used it to produce anaesthesia in some cases of surgical operation by Sir William Lawrence; but the subject was not further pursued. As everyone knows, Sir James Simpson is rightly regarded as having first discovered, and then introduced to the world, the use of chloroform as an anaesthetic, but the fact remains as an interesting incident in the history of anaesthetics that Furnell had shortly before used it under the name of chloric ether. He describes his experiment in the following words:

"In 1847 I was at John Bell & Co's [the chemists in Oxford Street on the site of the present Tube Station, whose shop front is preserved in the Wellcome Historical Museum] putting in a vein of pharmacy, to enable me to go up to the College of Surgeons, inasmuch as I had never been apprenticed to anyone. Whilst doing this I was also a perpetual student at St Bartholomew's. Sulphuric ether was, as you may remember, just then creating a great sensation in London, and numbers of instruments for its administration used to be sent to Bell's for sale. I was very much my own master there, and I used to amuse myself trying these various instruments, taking sulphuric ether, and producing insensibility. Jacob Bell became alarmed at last, and gave orders I was not to be allowed any more ether. Finding this, one day I went down to a store-room they had below to look for ether, as no one would give me any, and found, away on a back shelf, a neglected dusty bottle labelled 'chloric ether'. I took the cork out and smelt it: it seemed very nice, so I took it upstairs and put some into the instrument I wanted to try, and inhaled it. I found it sweet and very pleasant, and it soon produced a certain degree of insensibility. I was much struck with its not producing the suffocating irritation and choking feeling ether did. I took it down to Bartholomew's, and introduced it to the notice of Holmes Coote. The rest you know. I have often jocularly remarked that I first used chloroform, but until this note of Christison it had almost passed out of my mind. Holmes Coote remembered the circumstance very well, I found when I was at home on sick leave, 1869-70."

Entering the Madras Medical Service in February, 1855, Furnell passed through various grades till in 1885 he had risen to be Surgeon General. In 1886, after thirty-two years' service, failing health compelled him to leave India. He had gone through the Indian Mutiny campaign, being awarded a medal and clasp, and was Surgeon to Lords Napier and Hobart. During the Mutiny he was at the Battle of Dowdepore in Oudh and in several expeditions against the Oudh rebels. At Dowdepore he volunteered to go and recall an advanced guard of cavalry, which had lost its way in the darkness and been vainly searched for by several parties. He found the soldiers and was publicly thanked by Colonel Horsford, afterwards General Sir Alexander Horsford, KCB, 'at the head of the column'.

He was Principal of the Madras Medical College from 1875-1877, and during this period the first batch of lady doctors in India were among the students, being under the patronage of Lady Dufferin.

Furnell was Sanitary Commissioner of Madras, and on his retirement in 1886 was made CIE and received a good service pension. He gave the closing address at the Convocation of the Madras University in 1880. Up to that time there had not been, during the English period of rule, a single high-caste native in practice in Southern India, though, as Furnell pointed out, Brahmins were the sole physicians in the early period of Indian history. After his time Brahmins again began to practise in India, and several were already in the active pursuit of their duties at the time of his death in 1888, amongst them being the then Officer of Health of Madras. Brahmin students were at the time also studying at the Madras Medical College.

Surgeon General Furnell did much excellent work in India, and was a general social favourite. He was at one time Surgeon to the Madras Eye Infirmary, and, besides being Principal, was Professor of Medicine and Lecturer on Physiology at the Madras Medical College. He was also Physician to the General Hospital, Madras. At the time of his death he was a Fellow of the University of Madras and of the Anthropological Society. He died at Monte Carlo on May 24th, 1888.

A ready speaker and writer, he contributed to the Lancet, where at one time he was a regular correspondent.

"Notes on the Indian Medical Service." - St Bart's Hosp Rep, 1870, vi, 138.
Water and its Effect on Public Health, 8vo, Madras, 1882.
Cholera and Water. An Address, 8vo, Madras, 1886. This was translated into some Indian and Burmese dialects and went through several editions.
Cholera and Water in India, 8vo, London, 1887.
The chloroform incident is described in a letter to the Med Times and Gaz, 1875, I, 587, and in the Lancet, 1877, I, 934. An important letter on the status of medical men in India appeared over his signature in the Brit Med Jour, 1888, I, 558.

The Royal College of Surgeons of England