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Digging Up the Dead – Druin Burch *****

There is a rather good British TV drama called Waking the Dead that follows the work of a fictional cold case squad, which made the title of this book instantly attractive to me, and though it’s not the same subject – this is a biography of the great surgeon from the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries, Astley Cooper – the book is just as engaging as the drama. If the name of this surgical superstar of the day means nothing to you (I’d never heard of him), don’t worry – Druin Burch does a wonderful job of bringing the times alive in sometimes stomach churning, but always enticing fashion. There’s a brightness about his writing – the brightness of fresh arterial blood. Burch really makes this story vibrate with energy.
Admittedly he is helped by the fact that Cooper’s early life story is almost too good to be true. Leading a charmed life as a boy, nearly dying half a dozen times, he was a terrible student when first sent to London as an apprentice to his surgeon uncle (in those days, surgeons were practical people, already separated from barbers, but yet to be put on the same educational level as physicians, so required no university training). Switched to another surgeon as mentor because his uncle was fed up of him, Cooper found the new man a better psychologist – he brought home a human arm and dumped it in front of Cooper, asking him to dissect it on the dining table. The young man was hooked.
The description of the dissection rooms where Cooper received much of his training is gruesome, really giving an impression of what it was like at the time. Not only were all the corpses obtained illegally – a bizarre juxtaposition with the establishment nature of a teaching hospital, the place reeked, and quite frequently killed a student as they caught an infection from receiving a cut. We also hear how the composer Berlioz in his medical training fed human lungs to the birds that fluttered around the dissecting rooms, and threw bones to rats to gnaw on. Strong stuff.
What is also fascinating about this book is the background detail of life in Britain at a time that rarely gets through in modern history teaching. It has some striking parallels for the present day. The government was facing threats from terrorists (democrats, like those responsible for the French terror) and clamped down by increasing the length of time people could be held without charge and otherwise reducing civil liberties. Of course it was very different too – democracy was in short supply in a Britain where only a small section of the population had the vote.
Astley Cooper’s journey through the political upheavals of the time is almost as interesting as his medical career. Soon after getting married, he and his wife, fervent democrats, travelled to Paris, only to be caught up in the less uplifting aspects of the revolution. Eventually, Cooper was to have to choose between his politics and his career, and put his career and his family’s well being first – which might seem a weak decision, but he helped a lot more people this way than he ever would have done as a lightweight political figure. Over the years he moved away from his rebelliousness, ending up a staunch Tory and royalist – but still a fascinating character. Burch does well at bringing out the complexity of the man. He doesn’t whitewash over, for instance, the way Cooper managed to be both an animal lover and someone who was happy to cut pretty well any animal up alive to understand better how it worked.
Altogether a fascinating book, giving excellent insights into this transitional period when surgery was beginning to do so some good and becoming a respectable part of medicine. Highly recommended.
Review by Martin O'Brien


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