Anatomy of a life

<strong>Digging up the Dead: uncovering the life and times of an extraordinary surgeon</strong>


In Body Parts, her recent collection of essays, Hermione Lee has pointed out that the biographer sometimes has to deal not only with whole life stories, but also with "the parts and bits and gaps which are left over after the life has ended" - leftovers like Shelley's heart, which survived the bonfire on which his drowned corpse was burned, and thereafter became a fleshy talisman for readers wanting to believe that poets cannot be silenced by something as trivial as having their lungs filled with water. But the biographer has always been something of a Victor Frankenstein, reassembling the disjointed parts of a personal history in the hope that their subject will come to life on the page as a human being rather than a jumble of fragments. The lines of a biography need to be both slices through a life and the thread that holds it together.

Few biographers come to the task as well qualified as Druin Burch, whose training as a doctor means that he is used to emerging from the dissecting room and "finding bits of fat and connective tissue later in the day, trodden onto the sole of my shoe or hitching a ride in the fold of my jeans". And few subjects are as well suited to this treatment as Astley Cooper (1768-1841), the charismatic surgeon whose skill, energy and talent for self-promotion helped to drag medicine into the modern age. Having trained at Guy's Hospital at a time when surgeons were little better than licensed butchers, Cooper's professional dedication to investigating how the human body worked, rather than how it was popularly supposed to work, produced a revolution in surgical techniques with aftershocks that continue to be felt. (His research into the anatomy of the breast is still being cited in the 21st century.)

As is often the case with ambitious men, Cooper's story is really two stories: one which traces his rise to worldly success and influence, and the other which traces the gradual decline of his youthful political idealism. In 1792, with a revolutionary glint in his eye, he made a pilgrimage to Paris, and was an appalled witness to the violence of the mob as they processed through the streets with bits of the bodies they had torn apart, like a grotesque parody of the enlightened surgical techniques he had gone there to learn. By 1820, having meekly submitted to his employers' demands for a public recantation (not altogether convincingly excused by Burch as "a pragmatic choice, a sensible one"), he had been so dazzled by the glamour of the court that he could describe the bloated and debauched George IV, seemingly without any irony, as "the Prince of grace and dignity".

It is an unappealing trajectory, and Burch doesn't gloss over the unpleasant aspects of Cooper's personality: the vanity that sometimes confused the "theatre" of surgery with a love of self-display; the clumsy sense of humour that led him once to ask his hairdresser to reach into a tub of hair powder which he had replaced with monkey entrails; the willingness to use body-snatchers in his quest for new anatomical specimens; and especially the obsession with dissection that seemed to go well beyond the needs of medical science. If some of Cooper's experiments are hard to stomach, such as his decision to close the urethra of a rabbit merely to see what would happen (the rabbit died a slow and painful death), others are merely hard to fathom. One wonders what contribution to the knowledge of human anatomy was made by his public dissection of, among others, "elephants, cuttlefish, baboons, polar bears, walruses, lemurs, leopards, the lymphatics of a porpoise, kangeroos, tortoises, porcupines, panthers and seals and the stomach of a cormorant".

If Burch's account is unsparing in its details of how Cooper went about his daily work, up to his elbows in grease and blood, it is also unsentimental in arguing that such tactics were in all senses vital to the development of medicine. The decision to interleave a standard biographical account with snapshots of autobiography offers a series of intriguing hints as to why Burch finds Cooper such a compelling figure, even if some of the parallels are a little thin. (One wonders whether Burch added these sections on his own initiative or at the urging of an editor.) But this is still an ambitious and convincing attempt to bring back to life the man who was responsible for so many less respectable acts of resurrection, at a time when the night was regularly disturbed by the dull scrape of a wooden spade on a coffin, and the meaty thud of a sack being delivered to the waiting surgeon's back door.