I have read some interesting and unusual books in my time, but Druin Burch's Digging Up the Dead must be the most interesting and unusual book I have ever read. Indeed, when I was offered it for review, I had initially been drawn to the dark, Gothic nature of the subject, but hadn't quite clocked the fact it was a non-fiction title. So when it popped through my door I was slightly taken aback to discover that it was actually a biography. But what a biography it turned out to be!
Digging Up the Dead looks at the life and times of arguably the world's first famous surgeon, Astley Cooper (1768-1841), whom Burch -- himself a medical doctor -- describes as vain, egotistical, nepotistic and "rather wonderful".
Astley was born into a highly educated family -- his father was an Oxford-educated vicar, his uncle was senior surgeon at Guy's Hospital in London -- but he showed little interest in books or study but specialised in pranks and adventures. When the family moved to Yarmouth he began training under a local apothecary, who also doubled as a surgeon, in the hope that he might learn enough to follow his older brothers into university and perhaps a physicianship, or his uncle to a hospital and career as a surgeon. He did well and moved on to become an apprentice to a surgeon at the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital.
When he was fourteen-and-a-half he witnessed a problematic, but successful, operation to remove a stone from a man's bladder. This was to have a profound influence on him, because it was not long after that he decided to embark on surgical training in London, much to the delight of his family.
In London, his early career got off to a shaky start. He boarded with one of his uncle's colleagues, Henry Cline, in a "a grand detached residence with stables and outbuildings" at 12 St Mary Axe in the heart of the City of London, and spent much of his newfound freedom running wild instead of knuckling down to his studies. His superiors regarded him as lazy.
Cline, sick to the back teeth of his charge's reckless nature, came home one evening with a human arm and challenged Astley to dissect it then and there.
The skill and industry with which Astley dissected the arm astonished both the apprentice and the teacher. Astley was transformed. The fraudulent military uniform was gone, and in its place was the dress of a surgeon. For the first time in his life he found himself taking an interest in work.
From then on Astley became rather enamoured with dissection, working long hours in St Thomas's hospital, hunching over stinking corpses, learning everything he could about human anatomy. Because the study of anatomy was in its infancy at the time, there was no other way for surgeons to learn their trade and so this is where Druin's book delves into the gruesome nature of body-snatching, that peculiar illegal practice of stealing freshly buried bodies or -- worse still -- murdering people to satisfy the medical profession's need for corpses to study.
Indeed, Astley is often so desperate for fresh corpses he steals neighbourhood pets and dissects them at home while they are still alive, something that turns the stomach today but which, at the time, taught him much that was not known by the surgeons of the day. (Readers with weak stomachs will find much to disgust them in this book, not least the descriptions of vivisection but also the many and varied operations that are performed without anesthesia. But it would not be fair to say they have been included merely for their shock factor; they are necessary for the reader to put Astley's life into context.)
Eventually, of course, Astley becomes a hugely successful surgeon and lecturer, has studies published in The Lancet, wins the Royal Society's highest prize and tends to the Prince Regent and Queen Victoria. All the while, he manages to travel abroad (he gets caught up in the French Revolution), marry, have children and teach surgeon-soon-to-be-turned-poet John Keats (yes, that John Keats).
The picture of Astley that emerges from this rather in-depth but beautifully written biography is an enormously complicated man, arrogant but caring by turns, who loved to take risks but made sure to cover his tracks when it counted most. Living at at time of great political, social and scientific change, he seems to be one of the leading lights in almost every field, not just medicine, and was loathed and loved in equal measure.
Digging Up the Dead is a truly fascinating account of a fascinating man who lived in fascinating times. Druin Birch has done much to bring him to life by not only capturing the man so vividly but by illuminating the narrative with his own experiences as a medical doctor working more than two centuries after Astley first trod the London cobblestones. It's a slow-burn of a read, one that requires concentration and diligence, but it's well worth the effort, especially if you are fascinated by science, medicine or history.