As early as 1851 it was public knowledge that chloroform had been used for various criminal purposes as witnessed by a well-known cartoon in Punch magazine of that year .
It takes at least five minutes of inhaling an item soaked in chloroform to render a person unconscious. Most criminal cases involving chloroform also involve another drug being co-administered, such as alcohol or diazepam, or the victim being found to have been complicit in its administration.
After a person has lost consciousness due to chloroform inhalation, a continuous volume must be administered and the chin must be supported in order to keep the tongue from obstructing the airway, a difficult procedure even for an anesthesiologist.
After a person has lost consciousness due to chloroform inhalation, a continuous volume must be administered and the chin must be supported in order to keep the tongue from obstructing the airway, a difficult procedure even for an anesthesiologist.
Employment of chloroform by thieves and lovers
Not all were convinced of its success for such purposes and John Snow in two communications to the Medical Gazette in 1850 pointed out that, although chloroform had undoubtedly been used in a number of attempted crimes, there was no evidence that its use had been successful . According to Snow at that time only two cases were known where it had been proved that chloroform had been used, insensibility was not induced and the perpetrators were arrested . The first had occurred in London a few months earlier. ‘A young man returning after midnight with his sweet heart from a dance at a public house induced her to accompany him down a mews.’ Apparently, he then produced a bottle of chloroform, poured some on a handkerchief which he applied to the young woman's face. She tore away the handkerchief, screamed so loudly that a policeman in a neighbouring street responded, arrested the offender and picked up the bottle which had been discarded. The matter was resolved amicably when the accused married the girl when on remand!
The second case, also reported in the Kendal Mercury and Northern Advertiser on Saturday 2 November 1850, concerned an attack on an elderly clergyman in a Temperance Hotel in the town of Kendal where he had booked a night's lodgings. Since there was no lock on his door, on retiring for the night the clergyman used a chair to secure the door. Unfortunately, it would appear that his attacker had previously hidden himself in the bedroom and once his victim was safely in bed attempted to knock him out with a towel soaked in chloroform. However, the old clergyman struggled so violently and caused such an uproar that the landlord and other guests rushed to the room and after some difficulty with the door managed to enter and found the attacker and his victim both in a state of confusion. The attacker was arrested and it transpired that he had travelled with the clergyman on a stagecoach and had learned that the old man was carrying eleven gold sovereigns which he had collected for the Home Missions. The accused was tried at the Appleby assizes, convicted and sentenced to 18 months' imprisonment, much to the disgust of the Editor of the London Medical Gazette who thought that a sentence of transportation for 20 years would have been more appropriate .
Nonetheless, despite Dr Snow's arguments, there was a widespread belief that persisted, to some extent, even to the present day among the less well educated, perhaps nurtured by the public press, that highway robbers, thieves and rapists could, by shaking a handkerchief impregnated with chloroform under the nose of the victim, produce instantaneous insensibility. Accordingly, in 1865 in a brilliantly perceptive and caustic annotation, the Lancet took to task the then popular press about their refusal to accept the evidence of an experienced physician that anaesthesia by chloroform was not very quickly or very easily effected upon a nonconsenting person and that with the utmost resignation and good will some 5 min or more was requisite to produce anaesthesia, yet were willing to accept the evidence of an individual who was utterly drunk at the time that he claimed instantaneous insensibility following exposure to a handkerchief impregnated with chloroform . The annotation went on to guarantee those patrons and believers in the public press a permanent scientific reputation if they would uncover the secret of instantaneous insensibility which could be used for the benefit of society as a whole! Needless to say the secret has yet to be revealed .
The case of Mary Travers
Perhaps the best known case where rape under chloroform was alleged is that of Mary Travers , who at the age of 18 years in 1854 became a patient of the Dublin ophthalmic surgeon, William Wilde, later to become Sir William and father of Oscar Wilde. Mary Travers alleged that in October 1862, Sir William had given her chloroform and then raped her . Nevertheless, she remained his patient and she withheld her allegation for 2 years. However, when Sir William obtained his knighthood, she began to write letters to the press hinting strongly about his misconduct. Lady Wilde became so annoyed by her behaviour that she protested by letter to Mary Travers' father, who had lately become Professor of Medical Jurisprudence at Trinity College, Dublin, that his daughter was making unfounded allegations. Mary Travers found this letter among her father's papers and promptly sued Lady Wilde for libel.
The case lasted for 5 days, at the end of which the jury upheld the charge of libel, but they placed such a low value on the resulting damage that the financial award was no more than one farthing! It was thought that the trial would do Sir William lasting damage but that proved not to be the case. He was defended in England by the Lancet and in Dublin by Saunder's Newsletter, a journal against which Mary Travers brought a further libel action, but this time she lost and the matter died a natural death.
Whether Mary Travers was raped as alleged will probably never be known, but what is certain is that, according to Dudley Buxton, ‘many cases have now been reported in which the prosecutrix has affirmed that a dentist or a surgeon has violated her person while she was under the influence of anaesthetic … But it is not only designing, bad women who bring such charges. Modest, virtuous and refined gentlewomen have been prosecutrices in these cases. The cause for this remarkable and deplorable state of things is fortunately not far to seek. Chloroform, ether, nitrous oxide, gas, cocaine and possibly the other carbon compounds employed in producing anaesthesia possess the property of exciting sexual emotions and in many cases produce erotic hallucinations. It is undoubted that in certain persons sexual orgasm may occur during the induction of anaesthesia.’ .
A medical serial killer
During the latter half of the nineteenth century perhaps one of the most remarkable cases to emerge was that of Dr Thomas Neill Cream . Thomas Neill Cream was born in Glasgow in 1850 and in 1854 he emigrated with his family to Canada where his father prospered as a lumber merchant, so enabling his eldest son to enter medical school. In October 1872, Thomas Cream enrolled in McGill College, Montreal, and graduated there in March 1876 with a thesis on the effect of chloroform. About the time of his graduation, Dr Cream had met and seduced Flora Brooks, the daughter of a prominent hotel owner. The couple were soon engaged but in September 1876 Flora fell ill and her father was informed by the family doctor that she had recently been surgically aborted. A shot-gun marriage was instantly arranged by the enraged father and the day after the ceremony Cream was allowed to leave Canada to continue his medical studies initially in London and subsequently in Edinburgh where he developed an interest in midwifery. Flora Brooks died in August 1877 in suspicious circumstances and her family doctor strongly suspected Dr Cream of foul play on the basis that he had been sending his wife pills to take, but nothing could be proven.
Dr Cream returned to Canada in May 1878 and set up practice in London, Ontario. About a year later the body of one of his female patients was found slumped in an outhouse below his office. At the inquest it was established that the victim, who had gone to Dr Cream seeking an abortion, had died from an overdose of chloroform. Dr Cream claimed that her death was suicide, but suspicions were raised partly by abrasions on her face and partly by the assertion of the pathologist that it was impossible for a would-be suicide to hold a chloroform-soaked sponge over her own nose long enough to cause death. The Coroner's jury ruled that her death was murder caused by a person or persons unknown. The finger pointed at Cream but there was not sufficient evidence to indict him. Nevertheless, he left Canada hurriedly for Chicago where he obtained a licence to practise and it was not long before he was in trouble again. It began when he seduced the young wife of an Illinois station master who had sent her to obtain pills that Cream had advertised as a cure for epilepsy. It ended with him being charged with the murder of the stationmaster, convicted and sentenced to be imprisoned for the term of his natural life. He began his sentence on 1 November 1881. Ten years later, Thomas Neill Cream was declared a ‘fit and proper subject for executive clemency’ and he was released on 31 July 1891. He left once again for London and arrived there on 6 October. Some 9 months later on 18 July 1892 he was arrested and charged with the murder of four prostitutes, the attempted murder of a fifth and the sending of extortion letters to two doctors. The trial took place between 17 and 21 October in the Old Bailey. The jury reached its verdict of guilty in 10 min and Dr Thomas Neill Cream was hanged on 15 November 1892 in Newgate Prison.
There is no question that Dr Cream was a seducer, an abortionist, a blackmailer, an extortionist and a murderer as well as a drug addict, and he was probably the first doctor in the United Kingdom ever to be convicted of serial killing. With hindsight it would also seem that he killed many more women than those of whose deaths he was accused and it may never be known to what extent chloroform was used for this purpose. It is certainly true that the deaths that led to his conviction were caused by strychnine, but it is more likely than not that given Dr Cream's propensities, the aphrodisiac properties of chloroform were not ignored in his abuse of drugs.
It had been recognised for many years that all anaesthetic drugs possessed aphrodisiac properties and as this became more widely known chloroform, in preference to other agents, came to be used to heighten sexual pleasure and to enhance performance because of the ease of administration and because it was relatively pleasant to breathe. It was also discovered very early after the introduction of chloroform that it had addictive properties. Unfortunately, the dangers of the drug were less well known and inevitably tragedies occurred which were well documented in the world literature. Indeed, the first death resulting from addiction was reported within days of the death of Hannah Greener, the 15-year-old girl who was the first patient in England to die during a chloroform anaesthetic . The victim was a youth employed as a shop assistant in a drug warehouse in Aberdeen and who for a short time previously had been in the habit of inspiring the vapour of chloroform because of the pleasurable sensations which it aroused in him .
On the morning of 8 February 1848, the youth weighed out an ounce of chloroform to order and thereafter he was observed to be holding his handkerchief to his mouth and soon after he became somewhat excited. He retreated to another part of the shop where he was seen to be leaning forward on a counter with his head stooped and seemed to be inhaling the vapour from some folds in his apron which he had applied to his mouth and nostrils. There was a reluctance on the part of other members of the staff to approach him because he was known to become violent if any attempt was made to remove the chloroform bottle and, as had previously happened, the youth's father was summoned as the only person who could control him. The father arrived some 20 min later and found his son, to all appearances, lifeless. Vigorous attempts at resuscitation were made but in vain and a post-mortem examination carried out 24 h later established asphyxia as the immediate cause of death consequent upon the inhalation of chloroform.
But the use of chloroform has not been confined to consenting adults and in the recent past the English criminal courts have dealt with allegations that chloroform had been used to facilitate rape, both homosexual and heterosexual, as well as paedophiliac abuse and murder. Predictably, none of these cases was straightforward and the issues were further complicated by the adversarial system inherent in English Law which sometimes tends to obscure rather than reveal the truth.
A whiff of murder
In 1983 a 44-year-old industrial chemist was charged with the murder of his mistress with whom he was living and with administering a noxious thing, namely chloroform with intent to endanger life . In his defence, the accused argued that as a couple they used chloroform to improve their love life and had done so for some time. On the night his mistress died, they had been drinking together at a community centre, but left fairly early to return home where the accused had prepared a meal. They enjoyed the meal, had further drinks and sat talking and watching television. At that stage his mistress fell sick and retired to the bathroom where she vomited. Thereafter, according to the accused she felt much better and became amorous. They retired to bed, he soaked a towel in chloroform and they made love together so successfully that they decided it was worth repeating. Again the towel was soaked in chloroform but the accused apparently was so far under the combined influence of chloroform and alcohol that he collapsed on the bed with the towel between them. When he woke up he realised that she was very cold and instinctively knew she was dead. He panicked and attempted a cover up which was unsuccessful and a police investigation ensued.
The pathologist who carried out the autopsy stated that death appeared to be of an asphyxial nature but the exact cause could not be ascertained. His inability to determine a cause was puzzling because a subsequent forensic autopsy revealed that the victim's mouth contained food and liquid residue and that there was thick brown fluid in both nostrils. This, combined with the evidence of cyanosis in the nail beds, multiple petaechial haemorrhages over the face, neck and chest and the congestion in the lungs as well as vomit staining on the bed sheet, must surely have indicated that she had vomited, obstructed her airway and had undoubtedly died from asphyxia.
The forensic pathologist came to a different conclusion. According to him the victim died from chloroform poisoning. But what is important is that his conclusion was based on his claim that analysis revealed a toxic level of chloroform in the blood but, not to put too fine a point on it, that is nonsense. The level was that normally found during light anaesthesia and in no circumstances could it be regarded as toxic. Moreover, there was no other evidence suggesting chloroform toxicity and the only reason that a blood analysis had been done for chloroform was because the accused had suggested the possibility that chloroform inhalation had led to the victim's death.
At the trial in Chelmsford Crown Court in March 1984 the prosecution claimed that after the accused had met another woman he drugged his mistress in the bedroom with chloroform and turned her on her face so that she suffocated. The prosecution did not pursue the allegation that the cause of death was chloroform toxicity but argued that the blood levels obtained could not have been achieved in the way that the accused had claimed and two of their experts attempted to demonstrate by experiment why that could not have happened. However, in the course of the trial it became clear that their experiments were seriously flawed in that one group was carried out at 25 °C ambient temperature and the other even higher at 30 °C. But neither group of experiments had simulated the conditions in the bedroom on the night the victim died. The ambient temperature in the neighbourhood on that night was −1.8 °C and it is virtually certain that the bedroom temperature did not exceed 10 °C given that the bedroom window remained open until after the second chloroform inhalation. Accordingly, there was no physical reason to prevent the blood level of chloroform reaching the recorded level.
The strength of the Crown's case was not helped by the statement of one witness who declared that he could not understand why anybody would inhale chloroform in order to heighten sexual activity, it gave him a headache and also made him feel quite nauseous! . The reality of the situation is that many people over the years have used chloroform and related substances such as carbon tetrachloride to enhance their sexual enjoyment, a phenomenon that is well recognised.
The jury were certainly not convinced by the Crown's case and returned a verdict of not guilty to the murder charge. The accused was convicted of manslaughter and was given an 18-month suspended sentence. The second charge was ordered to remain on the file and not to be proceeded with without leave of the court.
Alleged homosexual rape under chloroform
In the Autumn of 1986, a young mortgage broker was accused of the homosexual rape of an acquaintance, an Italian waiter for whom he was arranging the purchase of some property. The story is complicated but from the point of view of this presentation, the basic facts are straightforward.
According to the alleged victim, he met the accused by appointment at 1 p.m. on a particular day in West London to visit property in West Hampstead. They travelled together by tube and bus and on arrival the accused apparently purchased two cans of ‘Diet Pepsi’ which they drank while waiting for the agent to appear. He failed to turn up and the accused suggested that they should visit his flat some 5 min walk away. According to the victim's statement, he was shown around the flat but claims that he could hardly keep his eyes open and thinks that he collapsed on a bed and passed out.
The next thing that he remembered was trying to see but his eyes were covered and his hands were tied behind his back. When he tried to move he heard the accused say that everything was alright and he felt a soft cloth placed over his nose and mouth and he apparently passed out again. When he woke up, his hands were no longer tied and his head was spinning but he noticed that it was 8 o'clock. When he managed to get up he realised that he was no longer wearing his underpants although his jeans were pulled up and fastened and the accused had gone. He looked around and found his underpants in a carrier bag which also contained eye patches and a pair of leather wrist straps as well as an empty Durex box, two candles, one of which had a wad of toilet paper round one end and three brown bottles containing variable quantities of liquid.
At this stage he attempted to put on his pants and realised that his anus was damp. He want to the bathroom to clean up and discovered that he was bleeding from the anus. He also noticed that his face appeared burnt around the right side of his mouth and his lips were numb as if he had been to the dentist. He left the flat and from Kilburn station he called the friend with whom he was hoping to purchase the property. Thereafter, he travelled across London to Wandsworth where they met and he described what had happened, after which they went together to St James' Hospital, Wandsworth Common, and the police were informed.
Subsequently, urine and blood samples were obtained from the complainant between 7 and 11 h after the alleged assault. The urine sample was found to contain breakdown products consistent with the prior ingestion of diazepam. No other drugs were detected apart from nicotine and specifically no alcohol was present. The blood sample confirmed the presence of diazepam in a concentration of about 90 ng.ml−1 together with its breakdown product of desmethyldiazepam (30 ng.ml−1). Chloroform was also detected (1.1 μg.ml−1) which could be compatible with an anaesthetic concentration 7–11 h earlier.
Later a blood sample was obtained from the accused and again diazepam (60 ng.ml−1) was detected as well as the breakdown product desmethyldiazepam (85 ng.ml−1). Tests for the presence of cannabinoids were inconclusive and no chloroform was apparently detected.
Further analyses were carried out on the contents of the ‘Diet Pepsi’ can and the three medicine bottles. Diazepam and caffeine were detected in the can and the medicine bottles contained a 40% mixture of chloroform in amyl nitrite. It would appear that this mixture was in common use in the gay community in that part of London. Finally, a cigarette found on the premises was analysed and shown to contain 13 mg of cannabis resin.
This case illustrates some of the difficulties that arise with our adversarial system of law. On the face of it the prosecution case was strong yet the jury were not convinced and the accused was found not guilty. That may well have been the correct verdict but the whole truth was not uncovered and many questions remained unanswered. The Defence only called one witness (myself ) who was only called in after the case had been started and as far as is known it had not occurred to the prosecution to call a witness experienced in the use of chloroform. Technically, the expert is there to assist the court but by the nature of things it is difficult not to take sides. Moreover, the expert can only answer the questions that are asked and counsel will struggle hard to ensure that ‘his’ witness will only answer questions that favour his client. Certainly cross-examination may reveal other aspects but the element of chance is high.
Abduction and rape under chloroform
In February 1994, a 59-year-old Bolton general practitioner went on trial at Liverpool Crown Court together with another charged with abducting and raping a young woman of 17 years. It was alleged that the doctor purchased chloroform which he used to render her unconscious and thereafter to transport her to some property which he owned and which was partially furnished. According to the girl, who was employed by the doctor on a part-time basis as a receptionist/typist, she was travelling with him in his car when he pulled a handkerchief out of his right pocket or from somewhere on his right side, transferred it to his left hand and held it under her nose asking at the same time if she liked the smell and claimed that it was Fahrenheit, an after-shave lotion. The doctor then stopped the car and suddenly put the hankie forcibly over her nose and mouth, she was very frightened and held her breath so that she didn't breathe in but then she was forced to breathe and she passed out. When she recovered consciousness she found herself naked and tied to a bed in a room and she was being photographed. She then felt the handkerchief being applied again to her nose and mouth and again she passed out. Next time she came round the doctor was in a stage of undress and it was clear to her that he had had intercourse with her. All of these events took place against her will.
The doctor alleged in his defence that the young woman was in fact his girlfriend and that she enjoyed having sex with him. He claimed that she had agreed completely to their relationship and to the nature of that relationship. It may be significant that the police removed from the doctor's possession a number of photographs and pornographic films in which he appeared to have a starring role.
The trial had already commenced when I was asked to appear as an expert witness for the Defence to describe how anaesthesia was induced with chloroform, how much time was needed for the purpose and how anaesthesia was maintained. In evidence, it was made clear that I did not know whether or not the young woman had been raped, but what was certain was that she was not raped in the way she had described. First, it would be virtually impossible for a single-handed anaesthetist, however skilled, to maintain anaesthesia and to protect the airway and at the same time drive a car, quite regardless of the other manoeuvres required to transfer the victim from the car into a house and then carry her upstairs into a bedroom. Second, to maintain anaesthesia with chloroform it is necessary to keep a steady drip of the liquid onto a mask suitably arranged to allow the patient to breath air freely. To achieve this it would be necessary to hold the mask over the face and mouth and to support the chin so that the tongue did not obstruct the airway, not always easy to do even in an operating theatre.
At the end of the trial, the doctor's alleged accomplice was unanimously acquitted of aiding and abetting the alleged rape. The jury, however, failed to reach a verdict in the case of the doctor and a retrial was ordered. The retrial took place in July 1994 at Lancaster Crown Court at the end of which the accused was sent to prison for 10 years. Misguidedly perhaps he had dismissed his original counsel and had been persuaded to engage a new counsel whose understanding of anaesthesia was fairly primitive and certainly not improved by his unwillingness to discuss the matter with the expert witnesses involved before the commencement of the trial, during which it became very clear that he was out of his depth.
On that basis, the appeal to the Court of Appeal was granted and as a result of an Order by the Appeal Court, new leading and junior counsel together with new solicitors were instructed in this case. In addition, the doctor was released on bail and a third trial was ordered which eventually, after some delay, took place in the Crown Court in Manchester in April 1997 where unfortunately from the doctor's point of view his conviction and sentence were confirmed and he was returned to prison.
Gross indecency with a minor
My most recent involvement with the criminal use of chloroform is also the most bizarre. In November 1996, a 37-year-old financial adviser was charged in Harrow Crown Court on two counts. First, that on 1 May 1996 he attempted to commit an act of gross indecency with a male person under the age of 18 years, namely of the age of 14 years, and second, that on 1 May 1996 he indecently assaulted that male person aged 14 years.
It was alleged that the schoolboy was employed by the defendant to undertake a cleaning job in the flat of the accused at a rate of £4 per hour. Three weeks before the incident in question the defendant had asked him to procure some chloroform or ether for which he would pay £120 if it was delivered before 25 April. The youth approached a school friend who undertook to supply the chloroform and it would seem attempted to make it and in due course produced a brown bottle containing about 100 ml of chloroform, or so he said. It later transpired that it was not possible to identify the substance which had been produced by the school friend partly because none of the liquid supplied to the accused was available for analysis and partly because on analysis of the samples of blood and urine taken from the alleged victim, no chloroform or other volatile solvents were detected in the specimens.
When he delivered the ‘chloroform’ to the defendant, the youth was asked by the defendant to try it, which he agreed to do. He was asked by the defendant to remove his shirt and to lie on his back on the bed whereupon the defendant administered the drug by pouring it onto tissues and holding it over his nose and mouth. He began to feel drowsy and felt himself pricked four times with a pin or needle. He next heard the defendant undo his belt and zip followed by the sound of heavy breathing. The youth claimed that the defendant was sitting astride him and he could feel his bare scrotum at the bottom of his chest and he was aware that the defendant was masturbating but he felt powerless to do anything.
Evidence was presented that the defendant had attempted to persuade at least one schoolboy among those who had worked for him to purchase chloroform on his behalf but despite the implications that volatile substance abuse could have been a factor in the relationships, the problem was not explored either with the witnesses of fact or with the experts. A guilty verdict was returned by the jury and the defendant was sent to prison for 3 years.
It is clear that the whole truth has not been uncovered in any of the four cases outlined above and that must be attributed to some extent to the adversarial system which dominates our court procedures in this country. The prosecution is unwilling to explore avenues that might assist the accused and the defence on the whole adopts a policy of damage limitation. It has been argued that the situation would be improved if all expert witnesses were appointed by the court. That could be true to some extent in the preparation of a report, but once the matter has reached the court the expert witness is limited to answering the questions asked by the barristers. He or she cannot pursue an independent line although occasionally an alert judge may encourage the witness to develop an explanation or comment. Perhaps not surprisingly, it would seem that the Lancet's forthright annotation  is as pertinent today as it was when it was written more than 130 years ago. In my opinion, an inquisitorial approach is needed if the whole truth is to be uncovered, particularly in criminal cases where the issues depend on specialised knowledge.
Paper Title : The criminal use of chloroform
I am indebted to Arthur Blake and Andrew Saywood for many helpful discussions and to Maria Pacelli of the Department of Anaesthesia, Royal Victoria Hospital, Montreal, who provided me with much background material on Dr Cream from the McGill University Archives.
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- 2 Atkinson RS. James Simpson and Chloroform. London; Priory Press Ltd., 1973; 76 – 7.
- 3 Snow J. The alleged employment of chloroform by thieves. London Medical Gazette 1850; XLI: 327.
- 4 Snow J. Further remarks on the employment of chloroform by thieves. London Medical Gazette 1850; XLV: 834 – 5.
- 5 Annotation. Anaesthetic Robberies, Thuggism in England. London Medical Gazette 1850; XLV: 758 – 60.
- 6 Medical Annotation. Chloroform amongst Thieves. Lancet 1865; 2: 490 – 1.
- 7 Ellman. Oscar Wilde. London: Penguin Books, 1988; 13 – 14.
- 8 Buxton DW. Anaesthetics, Uses and Administration, London; HK Lewis, 1888; 149 – 50.
- 9 McLaren. A Prescription for Murder. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1993; 32 – 60.
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- Number of times cited: 5
- 1Andres Rodriguez Zorro, Asphyxial suicide by inhalation of chloroform inside a plastic bag, Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine, 2014, 21, 1CrossRef
- 2R.J. Flanagan, D.J. Pounder, A chloroform-related death: Analytical and forensic aspects, Forensic Science International, 2010, 197, 1-3, 89CrossRef
- 3R.J. Flanagan, Encyclopedia of Forensic Sciences, 2000, 1375CrossRef
- 4A.J. Wright, From the Literature, Bulletin of Anesthesia History, 2000, 18, 2, 24CrossRef
- 5A.J Wright, From the Literature, Bulletin of Anesthesia History, 1999, 17, 1, 17CrossRef
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