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.
Review by Martin O'Brien


Popular posts from this blog

The Demon in the Machine - Paul Davies *****

Physicists have a habit of dabbling in biology and, perhaps surprisingly, biologists tend to be quite tolerant of it. (I find it hard to believe the reverse would be true if biologists tried to do physics.) Perhaps one reason for that tolerance is Schrödinger’s lecture series and book What is Life?, which had a huge impact on molecular biology and with a reference to which, not surprisingly, Paul Davies begins his fascinating book. 

At the heart of the The Demon in the Machine (we'll come back to that demon in a moment) is the relationship between life and information. In essence, Davies points out that if we try to reduce life to its simple physical components it is like trying to work with a computer that has no software. The equivalent of software here is information, not just in the best publicised aspect of the information stored in the DNA, but on a far broader scale, operating in networks across the organism.
This information and its processing gives life its emergent compl…

The Cosmic Mystery Tour – Nicholas Mee ****

This is another book, like last year’s Enjoy Our Universe by Alvaro de Rújula, that sets out to provide a light-hearted introduction to physics and astrophysics for the general reader. It’s from the same publisher (OUP) and packaged in the same way: as a high quality small-format hardback with 200 glossy pages, the majority of them adorned with colour pictures. But that’s where the resemblance ends. Unlike its predecessor, this new book by Nicholas Mee delivers exactly what it promises.

It’s not that de Rújula’s book was a bad one, but he just wasn’t able to think his way into the reader’s mind. He kept saying ‘physics is fun’, but he was talking about the fun a professional physicist gets out of doing it – which is a very arcane, often highly mathematical, type of fun. The result, for a non-specialist reader, was actually quite alienating. Mee, on the other hand, understands exactly how his readers think, what they find interesting, and the details that – no matter how important they …

Professor Maxwell's Duplicitous Demon - Brian Clegg ****

‘It’s not uncommon when trying to give Maxwell his rightful place in the pantheon of physics to bracket him with Newton and Einstein’, Brian Clegg says towards the end of this book. In one sense that’s perfectly true. Dip into any physics textbook and you’ll see Maxwell’s name at least as often as the other two. His greatest achievement – Maxwell’s equations – did for electromagnetism what Newton had done for gravity, while laying the essential theoretical groundwork for everything Einstein was to do.

There’s a big difference, though. A few years ago, when I was offered the chance to write short biographies of Newton and Einstein, I jumped at it – because they addressed mysteries of the universe that anyone can relate to, and their lives outside physics were, if anything, even more fascinating. At the risk of sounding downright rude, you can’t say either of those things about James Clerk Maxwell. In spite of that, Brian Clegg has done a wonderful job here of recounting just what Maxwel…