Skip to main content

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.
Paperback:  
Review by Martin O'Brien

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…

The AI Delusion - Gary Smith *****

This is a very important little book ('little' isn't derogatory - it's just quite short and in a small format) - it gets to the heart of the problem with applying artificial intelligence techniques to large amounts of data and thinking that somehow this will result in wisdom.

Gary Smith as an economics professor who teaches statistics, understands numbers and, despite being a self-confessed computer addict, is well aware of the limitations of computer algorithms and big data. What he makes clear here is that we forget at our peril that computers do not understand the data that they process, and as a result are very susceptible to GIGO - garbage in, garbage out. Yet we are increasingly dependent on computer-made decisions coming out of black box algorithms which mine vast quantities of data to find correlations and use these to make predictions. What's wrong with this? We don't know how the algorithms are making their predictions - and the algorithms don't kn…

Five Photons - James Geach ****

It is generally acknowledged that Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time is one of the most common books to be bought but not read beyond the first few pages. If you are the kind of popular science reader who found Hawking hard going, you can stop now - Five Photons is not for you. If, on the other hand, you found A Brief History of Time a piece of cake and wished you could get into more depth without resorting to heavy mathematics or a tedious textbook style, Five Photons could be just up your street.

Astrophysicist James Geach starts of fairly gently with a chapter on the nature of light that mostly sets aside quantum physics, leading up to the observation that light is our vehicle for for stripping back the history of the universe to its earliest times (or, at least, the point where the universe became transparent). From here on, the five photons of the title take us on different journeys, from the oldest surviving light of the cosmic microwave background radiation to that fr…