Digging up the Dead: uncovering the life and times of an extraordinary surgeon

Robert Douglas Fairhurst in New Statesman:

25098Few biographers come to the task as well qualified as Druin Burch, whose training as a doctor means that he is used to emerging from the dissecting room and “finding bits of fat and connective tissue later in the day, trodden onto the sole of my shoe or hitching a ride in the fold of my jeans”. And few subjects are as well suited to this treatment as Astley Cooper (1768-1841), the charismatic surgeon whose skill, energy and talent for self-promotion helped to drag medicine into the modern age. Having trained at Guy’s Hospital at a time when surgeons were little better than licensed butchers, Cooper’s professional dedication to investigating how the human body worked, rather than how it was popularly supposed to work, produced a revolution in surgical techniques with aftershocks that continue to be felt. (His research into the anatomy of the breast is still being cited in the 21st century.)

As is often the case with ambitious men, Cooper’s story is really two stories: one which traces his rise to worldly success and influence, and the other which traces the gradual decline of his youthful political idealism. In 1792, with a revolutionary glint in his eye, he made a pilgrimage to Paris, and was an appalled witness to the violence of the mob as they processed through the streets with bits of the bodies they had torn apart, like a grotesque parody of the enlightened surgical techniques he had gone there to learn. By 1820, having meekly submitted to his employers’ demands for a public recantation (not altogether convincingly excused by Burch as “a pragmatic choice, a sensible one”), he had been so dazzled by the glamour of the court that he could describe the bloated and debauched George IV, seemingly without any irony, as “the Prince of grace and dignity”.

It is an unappealing trajectory, and Burch doesn’t gloss over the unpleasant aspects of Cooper’s personality: the vanity that sometimes confused the “theatre” of surgery with a love of self-display; the clumsy sense of humour that led him once to ask his hairdresser to reach into a tub of hair powder which he had replaced with monkey entrails; the willingness to use body-snatchers in his quest for new anatomical specimens; and especially the obsession with dissection that seemed to go well beyond the needs of medical science.

More here.

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