James Simpson was born on 7 June 1811 in the village of Bathgate in Linlithgowshire, Scotland. His parents were the village bakers and he was one of 7 children. However his mother died when he was 9 years old. James Simpson attended the parish school then when he was 14 he went to the University of Edinburgh. Simpson graduated as a surgeon in 1832. James Simpson became an obstetrician and he soon gained a reputation as an outstanding one.
Meanwhile James Simpson was intrigued by the problem of pain in surgery. By 1846 surgeons had begun using ether as an anesthetic. In January 1847 Simpson used ether himself during a difficult delivery and he became an enthusiastic proponent of anesthetic. However ether was not perfect and Simpson looked for an alternative. In November 1847 he tried inhaling chloroform and it knocked him unconscious. James Simpson then tried it on a patient. It was a great success. The use of chloroform made childbirth much less painful for women. Chloroform made James Simpson famous. Afterwards he made other innovations in obstetrics. Meanwhile in 1850 Simpson was elected president of the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh. In 1866 in recognition of his great achievements James Simpson was made a baronet.
James Simpson was a devout member of the Free Church of Scotland. Simpson married his cousin Jessie on 26 December 1839. They had 9 children. James Simpson died on 6 May 1870. He was buried in Edinburgh.