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.) (See above.)
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.
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.
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.
John Hunter was a case in point. Hunter was an active learner, who eschewed what he saw as outdated and inadequate academic study in favour of dissecting hundreds, if not thousands, of bodies provided by a network of resurrection men. He was particularly interested in abnormal specimens, and his professionally detached, unemotional eye saw no harm in his obsessive pursuit of the mortal remains of the ‘Modern Colossus’ or ‘Irish Giant,’ Charles Byrne (1761 – 1783), despite the public protestations to the contrary by the fatally ill young man.
The 7’ 7” Byrne was a popular celebrity in England, conquering London in 1782, but his great height was a symptom of the then unknown and unnamed disorder Acromegaly, and by the age of twenty-two his health was failing rapidly, and Hunter wanted him. Terrified, the boy from County Tyrone gave an undertaker his life savings and arranged with friends that his body be constantly watched until it was sealed in a lead coffin and buried at sea.
Hunter’s fears were more practical in nature. Concerned that another surgeon might beat him to it, Hunter paid a man to watch Byrne’s lodgings for news of his demise, while the men charged with protecting the body were paid £500 to look the other way. Byrne died in June 1783, but when his huge coffin set sail from Margate and was duly committed to the deep he was not in it, having been conveyed to Hunter’s house in Earl’s Court and boiled down to his bones.
Four years later, after public interest in the Irish Giant had died down, Byrne’s articulated skeleton went on display at the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons. It stands there to this day, despite calls from the British Medical Journal in 2011 and the Mayor of Derry in 2015 to end its unethical display and bury it in accordance with Byrne’s final wishes. The curious brown discolouration of the skeleton is the result of Hunter’s indecent haste during the rendering process, which locked fat into the bones.
To Hunter, who died of a heart attack ten years after Byrne, this was all done in the interests of science, and his reputation suffered no damage as a result. He’s still getting away with it. His marble bust (one of many public memorials), is mounted proudly above the glass case in which Byrne forever stands, the centrepiece of the museum. In his portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1786, the Irish Giant’s skeletal feet are clearly visible in the background (see above right).
Dr. Stephen Carver teaches creative writing at The Unthank School of Writing. His latest book, The 19th Century Underworld, will be published by Pen & Sword next year. You can find more of his writing here
Bailey, James Blake. (1896). The Diary of a Resurrectionist 1811-1812, to which are added an account of the resurrection men in London & a short history of the passing of the anatomy act. London: S. Sonnenschien & co.
Cooper, Bransby Blake. (1843). The Life of Sir Astley Cooper. 2 vols. London: John W. Parker.
Cubbage, Eric. (2011). ‘The Tragic Story of Charles Byrne “The Irish Giant”.’ Available at: http://www.thetallestman.com/ (Accessed November 26, 2017).
Garrison, Fielding H. (1914). An Introduction to The History of Medicine. Philadelphia: Saunders.
Low, Donald A. (1999). The Regency Underworld. London: Sutton.
Muinzer, Thomas (2013). ‘A Grave Situation: An Examination of the Legal Issues raised by the Life and Death of Charles Byrne, the “Irish Giant”.’ International Journal of Cultural Property. 20 (1), February.
Moore, Wendy. (2005). The Knife Man: The Extraordinary Life and Times of John Hunter, Father of Modern Surgery. New York: Broadway.
Richardson, Ruth. (1988). Death, Dissection and the Destitute. London: Penguin.