Tuesday, March 1, 2011

A self-administered death

Image from Wikipedia. Photo: Kevin King.

Whatever dread a person may at first feel to inhale a dose of chloroform nearly always vanishes with the first trial. … The objection that chloroform has produced and may again, produce, death, is by far the most valid, and one which demands the gravest consideration. It must be remembered, however, that when we hear from time to time about fatal cases, no mention is made of the thousands of instances in which chloroform is constantly giving with impunity and with the happiest results. … Although used most extensively to abate the pangs of maternity, there has not in these cases been a single death recorded when the agent was administered by a qualified medical man. It may, we think, be affirmed without exaggeration that every one who starts on a railway journal encounters an almost unequal risk; and the proportionate number of accidents which occur from sea-bathing and skating are annually greater. The danger, indeed, of inhaling chloroform is fractional, while the benefit it confers on humanity is incalculable. The science of anaesthetics is yet young. Further experience will probably still further diminish the slight risk which anaesthesia entails.— Household Words. (Colonist, 19 August 1859)

Dr Charles Henry Huxtable turned up in Thames in December 1879, taking over the practice of Dr Andrews there. There he was a member of the Court Pride of Parnell Ancient Order of Forresters. By January 1880 he was successfully applied to be on the staff of the Thames Goldfield Hospital.

As will be seen in our advertisement columns Dr Huxtable, late physician and house surgeon to the Royal Infirmary, Glasgow, has commenced the practice of his profession here. He has taken the premises lately in the occupation of Dr Gilbert, in Central Pollen-street, where he may be consulted after Jan. 26. Dr Huxtable has the highest testimonials and references, and will be a valuable addition to our staff of medicos. We have seen copies of some very high testimonials to Dr Huxtable, many of them from the hands of gentlemen at the head of their profession, such as Dr W. T. Gardner, physician to the Queen for Scotland and professor of medicine in the University of Glasgow, Dr A. Wood Smith, of the Glasgow Infirmary, and a number of others.
Thames Star, 24 January 1880

Then, he met with a nasty accident later that year.

We are very sorry indeed to hear that Dr Huxtable met with a very severe accident last night. His professional duties called him up the Hope Creek district, and in coming back down one of the hill paths his horse stumbled and threw him. He was quite alone and must have been insensible for some time from the effects of the fall, but after a time managed to catch his horse and reach his home. Of course attention was at once paid to his injuries which were principally about his head, and were very serious wounds. Dr Huxtable has since his arrival on the field been most attentive to his duties, and we are sure his many friends will hear with regret the accident that has befallen him.
Thames Star, 17 August 1880

In 1880, he married Ella Mary Ridings. The couple had a son, Noel Hastings Huxtable, in 1883.

Acceptance of Dr Huxtable was not universal, however.

(To the Editor of the Thames Star)
Sir,—l am sorry, for Dr Huxtable's sake, that my remarks should have drawn him out so fully. Some of us, perhaps, now and again, may feel inclined to put forth the petition, "save me from my friends;" but Dr Huxtable, judging from his letter in your issue of Saturday, ought slightly to modify the text, and constantly offer up the prayer, "Save me from myself!" I never read a letter so stamped with egotism and self-conceit. What a shining light we have had all this time on the Thames, hiding its brilliancy under a bushel! Why, according to his own showing, he has had opportunities and advantages such as fall to the lot of very few. He was House Surgeon to this institution, House Physician to that, and goodness knows what else besides. I don't know much about those things, but I can put two and two together, and by that process it puzzles one to know how Dr Huxtable can have held all those appointments, when I remember that he stated at the Prokoffi trial that he was only four years qualified, and when I find from his printed testimonials that he was in the colonies a few months after being qualified. But, then, perhaps they are not very strict in the old country, and give those appointments to unqualified men. Dr Huxtable is anxious to impress on us that he did not come to the Thames for experience. Again I say, I don't know much about those things, but I should have thought that in progressive sciences, like Medicine and Surgery, a man engaged in the practice of his profession must always consider himself a student, and be always adding to his stock of experience. And l am afraid that the young man who starts on his labours with the comfortable conviction that he has nothing to learn will come to grief on the quicksands of ignorance. But Dr Huxtable is not an ordinary man. Like Minerva, he was projected full-fledged on the world with a complete stock of every qualification. And certainly if his experience is on a par with his modesty, he is equal to any emergency, and does not do himself injustice when he says that he "did not come to the Thames for experience." I am glad to know that there is one medical man on the Thames who "minds his own business," but I am afraid he gives a very wide interpretation to that phrase, and translates it "making his own business at the expense of others."—I am, &c, Parent.
Thames Star 3 October 1881

Dr Huxtable signed himself as Bachelor of Medicine and Master of Surgery, both qualifications earned in Glasgow in 1877. It seems, though, that he determined to quash any further thoughts as to his lack of qualification by returning to Glasgow, and gaining his doctorate in medicine in 1883. He came back to Thames by August that year, and registered under the Medical Practitioners Act. By December, though, he decided to leave Thames.

I’ve found nothing else about him, until his death at Hobson Street, in Auckland, 7 February 1886.

We very much regret to have to record the death of one of our most promising medical men, Dr C H Huxtable, physician and surgeon, who was found dead on the 7th February at seven a.m., in the parlour of his residence, Hobson-street, under the following circumstances:-

It appears that he was unable to sleep, and frequently found ease in inhaling chloroform. On February 6 he remarked to a friend whom he met that he felt ill, and must go home and lie down and see if he could obtain a couple of hours’ rest. He did so, and in the evening called on Dr Hooper between nine and ten o’clock, with whom he had a professional engagement for the following day. He told Dr Hooper he did not feel any better, and after sitting a short time he returned home.

During the evening he sent the servant girl to Mr Hudson’s, chemist. For an ounce bottle of chloroform, which she gave to Dr Huxtable on her return. He informed Mrs Huxtable that he could not get sleep, and would go down into the parlour with some pillows and try and sleep there. After having a smoke, he went to the room in question, Mrs Huxtable falling off to sleep.

On awaking on Feb 7, at seven o’clock in the morning, she went to call him and found him lying dead on the floor. She immediately sent for Dr Hooper, who resided two or three doors off, and after examining the body he stated that deceased must have been dead for some time, the body being quite cold. From appearances he had placed some chloroform, about half an ounce, and sponge in a small china bowl, and evidently during the inhalation had fallen over on his face with the bowl to his mouth, and not getting sufficient air to inhale with the chloroform had died in that position, being insensible.

An inquest was held at the Prince of Wales’ Hotel on February 8, before Dr Philson, District Coroner, and a jury, of whom Mr Walter Scott was the foreman. Mr E Cooper appointed to watch the proceedings on behalf of the deceased’s relatives. Dr Hooper gave evidence, and stated that in his opinion there was no doubt that death was caused by the inhalation of chloroform. Ella Mary Huxtable, widow of the deceased, also gave evidence and stated that the deceased used frequently to inhale chloroform when unable to sleep and always administered it himself by dropping it on a handkerchief and inhaling it. About a year ago he took an overdose, and Dr Wine was called in on that occasion. She had always tried to dissuade him from taking it. The witness deposed to the steps she took when informed of the occurrence.

After a brief deliberation, the jury returned the following verdict: - “Found dead on February 7, through inhaling an overdose of chloroform, taken to procure sleep.”
NZ Herald, 1 March 1886

He was buried in the Anglican section of the Symonds Street cemetery.

Was it that accident in August 1880, and resulting head injury, that sparked off Dr Huxtable’s chronic sleeplessness which led to his death? Probably no one will ever know.


  1. How sad, also what a sheer unnecessary waste of life and medical talent.
    Almost identical to the death of Michael Caine's doctor character in The Cider House Rules.

  2. I was thinking, as I wrote that -- he really should have had someone with him, such as his wife, as he did that. But she didn't approve, so he did it alone. Yes, Jayne, very sad.