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Sunday, 27 January 2013

Astley Cooper is still a jerk

In Digging up the Dead: Uncovering the Life and Times of an Extraordinary Surgeon Druin Burch attempts to exonerate this infamous surgeon from centuries of bad press. I don’t really think it worked.

With a fairly standard biographical approach, Burch takes us through the life and times of Sir Astley Cooper, Norfolk boy, student of John Hunter, surgeon to the king, and general cad. If you know anything about Cooper, you probably remember him for this quote: There is no person, let his situation in life be what it may, whom if I was disposed to dissect, I could not obtain. The law only enhances the price, it does not prevent exhumation. It’s probably a good summary of Cooper’s life. Incredibly powerful surgeon, enormously conceited man. (Fun fact, Cooper was buried in a locked coffin in a crypt in St. Thomas' Hospital so he could never be snatched. Is that irony? Hypocrisy?)

If anything, Burch hurts himself by trying to humble Cooper. We learn plenty about his personal life, his wife, his adopted children, even his idyllic sounding Norfolk childhood. Burch paints a picture of a beautiful child with curly golden ringlets. I don’t feel empathetic, I feel sick.

Admittedly I learned more about Cooper than I knew before. I learned about his days as a raging Democrat, traveling abroad to experience the hey day of the French Revolution before being chased away as an English Aristocrat. I also found Burch’s re-examining of John Keat’s medical career fascinating. Is it possible that the great poet actually found surgery and his art compatible? Burch argues that Keats always believed he could return to medicine if he desires, and that he was a competent surgeon. It is a perspective not often forwarded by other academics but the arguments seem sound.

There can be little doubt that Sir Astley Cooper is an important figure in the development of surgery, that much Burch makes clear. It is also true that most people don’t credit Cooper for the amount of free work he did for poorer patients. At the end of the day, Cooper still comes across as superficial, self-absorbed and occasionally cruel (particularly in his constant vivisections). I also found the book lacked in cultural geography and context. I want to understand more about the medical field at the time and Cooper’s place the very small world of late 18th century London.

For me with my particular interests, I wanted more John Hunter and I wanted more body snatching. I’m sure Burch was trying to separate Astley from his eminent (and clearly much more awesome) tutor by allowing Hunter to flow in and out of the narrative. I would argue everything of use Astley learned from Henry Cline and John Hunter, so don’t hide it. Equally, we get very little detail of Cooper’s dealing with the body snatchers. This has become much of Cooper’s legacy as he spearheaded the Anatomist Club: a gathering of powerful London surgeons anxious to form a union against the greedy body snatchers. If you are going to call this book ‘Digging Up the Dead’, you’d better damn well give me what I want Druin Burch. It is not possible to make Cooper seem sweet and cuddly, but you could have made him seem the master of London’s underworld trade in human flesh. Go for that one, I’d read that book.

In his afterword, Burch describes his own work in surgery and his fondness for this ‘vain egotistical, nepotistic and rather wonderful old man.’ I think that sums Astley Cooper up quite nicely. Overall it’s a well written and interesting book, if slightly apologetic and narrow in it’s focus. I genuinely appreciate that it was written by an actual surgeon as I find some people in the medical profession have very little interest in or respect for medical history. If Astley Cooper is your hero, then I say good for you Druin Burch.

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