Thursday, February 09, 2012


Vintage Books - Review by Margaret Muir

In today’s western society, more bodies are donated to medical science than are required, but in the latter part of the eighteenth century, procurement of human cadavers was the lucrative occupation of the grave robbers. Dissection of human specimens, alive or dead, was a professional necessity for the young man who wished to become a surgeon.

Digging up the Dead is the biography of Astley Cooper (1768 – 1841), a man whose initial aspirations were to graduate from apothecary to surgeon and thence the role of physician. A man who rose to be the richest surgeon in Georgian England.

Digging up the Dead also provides an absorbing insight into the age when surgical procedures and anatomical knowledge were severely limited; where surgery was often experimental and where the unfortunate patients faced both excruciating pain and the high risk of mortality.

Soon after commencing his seven year’s medical apprenticeship in London, Cooper became intrigued with the science of surgical procedures – more specifically the art of human dissection. He believed that only through dissection, vivisection and surgery could the mechanisms of life be unravelled.

Though he preferred to hone his skill on the partially decomposed flesh of human cadavers, he also welcomed the opportunity to dissect and examine either live or dead animals. His specimens ranged from dogs and cats to exotics such as an elephant, kangaroo and whale.

Astley Cooper was a man of startling contrasts spending an hour a day with his hairdresser and insisting on wearing the finest silk stockings to complement the shape of his calf muscles. Yet he was a man who could rush from cadaver to patient without washing the bloodstains from his hands; a man of physical charm and charisma who demonstrated unceasing enthusiasm and energy for surgery. Yet he had the uncanny ability to ignore the cries from the pain he inflicted on his patients. Without the availability of anaesthetics, it is said that many of the surgical procedures of the day were tantamount to gross acts of cruelty.

Digging up the Dead takes the reader into the often despicable, horrific yet challenging world of dissection and vivisection. The author puts into place the roles of apothecary, surgeon and physician and shows how political allegiances of the time could affect a man’s career.

Burch takes the reader on a journey back in time. He reveals a vibrant London around 1800 depicting the squalor of the backstreets, the desecrated graveyards, the fine drawing rooms of the titled classes and the mortuaries of the major teaching hospitals of the day. Included is a stark reminder of the financial and physical costs of surgery. It was a time when life and death balanced on the surgeon’s knife edge, where infection was carried on blood-stained instruments directly from cadaver to live patient.

Burch also transports his reader into the dark world of grave robbers – men known as resurrectionists, exhumers, lifters or sac ’em up men – night-workers who were prepared to chance the gallows in return for rich pickings made from the trade in fresh corpses. It was a time when life was cheap and death often came early. Where the bodies of infants and fresh foetuses were charged by the inch and ‘larges’ or adult cadavers could return ten guineas apiece. A time where hospital wards stank of the putrid stench of rot or with the scent of wine and spirits which were used as preservatives. It was a time when the poor had little access to free surgical treatment and usually died without surgical intervention. A time when had access to expensive surgical procedures but where ironically many suffered excruciating deaths at the hands of the inexperienced surgeons.

Dressing up the Dead is an intriguing and well researched biographical work written by a latter day physician. Burch interlaces his chapters with some personal experiences, and supplements this biography with a useful index and extensive bibliography. His descriptive passages pulsate with the flow of a fiction novel.

An informative and thoroughly enjoyable read.
Margaret Muir (Originally posted to May 2008)

No comments: