The Irish Giant

Resurrection, Corpse Art, and How the Father of Modern Surgery Stole the Irish Giant

Something a little spooky for Christmas Eve, a new guest post for Dirty, Sexy History. This is a background episode I had to cut from The 19th Century Underworld because of space…

By the middle of the eighteenth century, medical science in Britain was rapidly evolving. Surgeons had split from the Worshipful Company of Barbers as a professional guild in 1745, forming the Company of Surgeons. This was the forerunner of the Royal College of Surgeons, which was created by Royal Charter in 1800, and the reason we don’t call hospital consultants ‘Doctor’ – barber-surgeons held no medical degree. As the profession established itself as an Enlightenment science based upon empirical research and experiment, two figures came to dominate its development: the Scottish anatomist and physician William Hunter (1718 – 1783), and his younger brother John (1728 – 1793), who went on to be known as the ‘Father of Modern Surgery.’

William had studied medicine at Edinburgh University. He moved to London in 1741, studying anatomy at St George’s Hospital. He quickly established himself as an able physician, also running a private anatomy school in London, offering supplementary tuition to hospital school students. He taught the ‘Parisian’ method, whereby each trainee surgeon could work on an individual corpse rather than the more usual practice of watching an instructor dissect or lecture using models in a great Theatrum Anatomica. William was joined there by his brother John, who acted as his assistant, which in practice almost certainly meant illegally procuring bodies for dissection, before becoming a teacher himself. John went on to study at Chelsea Hospital and St. Bartholomew’s, and was commissioned as an army surgeon in 1760, further refining his skills during the Seven Year’s War. William, meanwhile, became physician to Queen Charlotte in 1764, and by the end of the decade he was a Fellow of the Royal Society and a Professor of Anatomy to the Royal Academy, where he once posed the body of an executed smuggler so that it would stiffen into the attitude of the Roman statue the ‘Dying Gaul,’ before flaying it and having the Italian artist Agostino Carlini cast it in plaster. (The ‘Smugglerius’ can still be seen at the Royal Academy.) On returning to England on half-pay, John became a surgeon at St George’s Hospital in 1768, after a brief stint as a dentist during which he experimentally transplanted human teeth. In 1776, he was appointed surgeon to George III, rising to the position of Surgeon General in 1790.

Smugglerius
Smugglerius sketched by William Linnell in 1840.

In addition to the importance of their collective research, which remains relevant to this day, these distinguished brothers were innovative teachers. The Hunters taught some of the most influential blades of the next generation, such as Sir Astley Paston Cooper (1768 – 1841), whose passion for anatomical study was such that he once dissected an elephant obtained from the Royal Menagerie in his front garden, the carcass being too big to get inside. They stressed the importance of hands-on pathological and physiological knowledge, which could only be gained through the regular dissection of animals and human beings, enhancing diagnostic accuracy and the refinement of surgical technique. Books and lectures, they believed, were not enough, while no published medical ‘fact’ should be accepted without rigorous empirical testing.

Despite such advances, Georgian surgery was not pretty. There was no real understanding of infection, and no anaesthetic. Operating tables were made of wood, an ideal surface for bacteria to flourish, with a channel for blood to run off into sawdust-filled buckets. John Hunter called his patients ‘victims,’ and they were tied down and held as necessary, conscious and screaming throughout the procedure, which was often conducted in front of a large class of medical students. The mortality rate was high, but your chances of survival were greatly enhanced if your surgeon was knowledgeable, precise, and above all quick with the blade and the suture. That said, many of the patients who were strong enough to survive the operation subsequently died from infection.

For surgeons, the only way was to learn by doing. The problem was that there simply weren’t enough human corpses legally available to anatomists. Bodies for dissection were supplied under the provision of the 1752 Murder Act, as an additional deterrent to what politicians believed was a troubling rise in capital crime. But even the Bloody Code could not meet the ever-growing demand for specimens in the burgeoning and lucrative world of the private anatomy schools. The surgeon Robert Knox, for example, who was supplied by Burke and Hare, had 400 students under him at the height of his success, while his school was only one of half a dozen in Edinburgh at the time. Thus, as is well-known, came the resurrection men, organised criminal gangs who exhumed bodies from graveyards which they sold to the surgeons, who were well aware of where their ‘subjects’ were coming from. This wasn’t a new trade, but by the end of the century it was becoming a ghoulish epidemic. As James Blake Bailey wrote in The Diary of a Resurrectionist (1896), ‘The complaint as to the scarcity of bodies for dissection is as old as the history of anatomy itself.’

Even though, as surgeons were quick to argue, the general population could only benefit from advances in surgical knowledge and well-trained doctors, the thought of body-snatching was appalling to ordinary folk. Dissection carried the stigma of criminal punishment, while in a god-fearing culture, people believed that if their mortal remains were defiled, they would not rise on the Day of Judgement. To medical men, however, all this was a necessary evil, in which the good far outweighed the bad. Surgeons viewed themselves as scientists; human corpses were no different to any other dead animal, merely specimens to study and, indeed, collect…

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The 19th Century Underworld by Stephen Carver

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