Some Old Doctors

By Mrs. G. Linnæus Banks

It is not my intention to go back to those Greek fathers of the healing art, Hippocrates and Galen, or to dwell on the days when every monastery held within its walls some learned brother accredited to administer to bodies as well as souls diseased, or when the mistress of every feudal castle, every baronial-hall, was trained and skilled in leechcraft, distilled herbs, concocted potions and unguents, and not only physicked her household, but was prepared to staunch and dress the gaping wounds received in siege or tournay. Nor yet have we ought to do with those pretenders to science who mingled astrology with pharmacy, ascribed to every plant its ruling planet, and held that the potency of all herbs depended on the conjunction of planets, or the phase of the moon under which they were gathered—a belief, indeed, under which old Nicholas Culpepper compiled his well-known “Herbal” early in the seventeenth century.

Medicine and surgery have made rapid strides since the days, not a century agone, when in the naval cockpit, and on the open battlefield, the hatchet was the ready implement for amputation, the rough cautery that of a red hot iron applied to the fizzing flesh; and when the doctor cried, “Spit, man, spit” to the suffering soldier with a gunshot wound in his chest, and when the sputum came tinged with blood, simply plugged up the bullet-hole and left the poor fellow to his fate, while he passed on to cases less hopeless. And en passant I may say that wooden legs and stumps for arms were so common in the writer’s young days as scarcely to attract attention—so ready were army surgeons to amputate.

These are not matters on which I have to dwell, but I think the present work would be incomplete without a record of those men of original mind, whose acute observation and unwearied investigations in the past have indissolubly linked their names with discoveries which have revolutionised the practice of both medicine and surgery.

In the opinion of Solomon, “there is nothing new under the sun;” and if such was the case in his day, how much more of a verity must be the truism in ours.

So the most startling and perfect revelation of any great fact in human physiology may have been dimly perceptible to earlier intelligences groping in the dark, faint adumbrations of which may fall on the sensorium of the final discoverer, until a ray of divine light dispels the mists of ages, and the man, developing his crude idea with infinite pains, realises a great truth, and cries out “Eureka” to an astonished—and too often—an unbelieving world.

Thus it may have been with the renowned practitioner, William Harvey, who came into the world when all England was filled with alarms of an “Invincible Spanish Armada,” then preparing to devastate our shores and spare neither man nor maid, babe nor mother. Yet the scare passed and peace came, and the boy grew, until his educational course at Cambridge ended, and his bias led him towards Padua, then the great seat of academical and medical lore, and there he took his doctor’s degree in physic. With the prestige of Padua upon him, in 1607, when he was but twenty years of age, he was elected Fellow of the College of Physicians (founded by Dr. Linacre in the reign of Henry VII.), and in 1715, the man of twenty-eight became their Anatomical Reader.

A noteworthy appointment this, since consequent study and investigation led to the grand discovery that the heart—to speak unscientifically—was a sort of muscular pumping-engine, sending the blood circulating along a series of blood-vessels to every part of the system, changing in character on its course until it returned to its centre, the seat of life, to be pumped out afresh to circulate as before and do its appointed work.

In 1628, Harvey made his discovery known in a learned treatise “On the circulation of the blood,” and as may be supposed, his daring assertions roused a violent spirit of opposition amongst his medical brethren, even among those who began to feel the pulses of their patients for the first time, and to comprehend why there should be a fluttering or audible beating under the sick one’s ribs, and wherefore the fatal hemorrhage following a sword-thrust or a gunshot wound.

In spite of opposition his teaching created a revolution in medical practice. The discoverer was called before Charles I. and his Court to demonstrate the action of the heart and subsidiary organs, in support of his new doctrine.

Fresh honours fell upon him even when too old to bear the burden. And when in the fulness of time, William Harvey, who had outlived three monarchs, made his own exit under Cromwellian rule, he bequeathed infinitely more to posterity in his invaluable discovery than can be summed up in the estate, library, and museum now in the proud possession of the College of Physicians. These are held by a mere body of men. The other has a world-wide significance.

Yet, as in his life, even in his grave, detractors strove to dim the glory of his important revelation, ascribing to the theological physician Servetus, to Realdus Columbus, and to Andreas Cæsalpinas, the credit of prior discovery.

It remained for another learned physician, a century later, to deal with these counter-claims, and whilst admitting their vague individual conceptions of an elusive mystery, to establish once and for ever William Harvey’s inalienable right as sole discoverer.

This notable champion was John Freind, m.d., f.r.s., distinguished as the Medical Historian, and Harveian lecturer to the College of Physicians, at a time when he and his fellows shaved their heads and mounted Ramillies wigs as outward guarantees for the profundity of wisdom they enshrined.

But apart from his flowing wig, or his defence of Harvey, or his learned medical history, written in part when he was a prisoner in the Tower for supposed complicity in the Atterbury Plot, or for skill in the treatment of disease, John Freind had a pioneer’s claim to distinction.

The doctor, strange to say, was a Member of Parliament, and on resuming his seat on his release from incarceration, he brought before the House of Commons, in 1725, a remarkable petition from the Royal College of Physicians, to restrain “the pernicious use of spirituous liquors.” And though he might speak but as the mouthpiece of his brother Fellows, it needed no small degree of courage to broach such a subject in those days of general coarse indulgence among all classes; especially if his own language was as direct and forcible as that of the petitioners.

Therefore, in his triple character as the historian of medicine, as the champion of William Harvey, and as the foremost M.P. to advocate the cause of temperance before our national legislative assembly, John Freind, M.D., claims a niche in our Walhalla of notable old doctors.

In the nave of Westminster Abbey on a memorial of polished granite is this inscription—“Beneath are deposited the remains of John Hunter, born at Long Calderwood, Lanarkshire, N.B., on February 14th, 1728; died in London on October 10th, 1793. His remains were removed from the Church of St. Martins-in-the-Fields to this Abbey on March 28th, 1858. The Royal College of Surgeons of England have placed this table over the grave of Hunter to record their admiration of his genius as a gifted interpreter of the Divine power and wisdom that works in the laws of organic life, and their grateful veneration for his services to mankind as the Father of scientific surgery. ‘O Lord, how manifold are Thy works; in wisdom hast Thou made them all.’”

Such honours are not paid to the remains of men of common stamp. And of no common stamp was the sandy-headed youth who, having spent ten years of his life learning cabinet making, resolved on striking out a better career for himself; and in his twentieth year took horse and journeyed to London to place himself under his elder brother, William Hunter, then rising into note as a medical practitioner and a teacher of anatomy. In October, 1748, he entered his brother’s dissecting room, and whether the fitting of joints in cabinetware had been of initiatory service, or he had had access to the books of his medical relations in Glasgow, or that as a boy upon his father’s farm, observation of the domestic animals and of the wild inhabitants of wood and fell, had roused the desire to master the secrets of animated nature, sure it is that William speedily foretold a successful future for his new pupil as an anatomist.

At all events he used his interest to place his promising brother under the eminent surgeon of Chelsea Hospital, and later under another at St. Bartholomew’s. Then, shocked by the rough speech and manners of his countrified brother, and his need of education, the classical elder packed him off to college to pick up a little refinement along with Latin and Greek.

In vain. Irrepressible and hot-tempered John could not sit down quietly to study dead languages. Back he came from Oxford in haste, to study dead bodies in his brother’s dissecting room, and serve as demonstrator to his course of lectures, simultaneously with his study of living bodies at St. George’s Hospital, where in a comparatively short time he became house-surgeon.

His appointment as staff-surgeon to our troops on foreign service marked the six intervening years before he settled down to practise in London. He had laboured ten years on human anatomy, and had dissected a number of the lower animals, laying the foundation of his collection of comparative anatomy. Even while on foreign service he had amused himself with studying the digestive faculties of snakes and lizards when in a torpid state, and many were the contributions he sent home to his brother’s museum.

His return to London, as a teacher of surgery and anatomy, was a marked success, though private practice had to grow. In 1776, he was appointed surgeon extraordinary to His Majesty George III., but eleven years prior to this was admitted a Fellow of the Royal Society, slightly in advance of his elder brother. Then in 1768, the bachelor, William, shifted himself and his museum from Jermyn Street to Windmill Street, and resigned the lease to John, thus securing independent action to the latter, and facilities for creating a natural-history museum of his own.

Hitherto, the brothers had worked together in unison, but now John committed the unpardonable offence of bringing home to Jermyn Street “a tocherless bride,” fourteen years younger than himself, endowed only with beauty and accomplishments, and a faculty for filling the house with assemblies of wit and fashion, which blunt-spoken John designated “kick-ups,” no doubt with an irreverent big D as a prefix, swearing being as characteristic as hard work.

And work hard he did, early and late, not merely to maintain his extensive and lucrative practice, but to provide and prepare subjects for the museum in the rear of his town house, and for the valuable and original lectures he delivered in language forcible and clear, if neither refined nor academic.

His chief workshop, so to speak, was at his country “Box” at Earl’s Court, the grounds of which he had converted into a zoological garden, so many wild animals were there kept for study. There is a story told of his facing an escaped lion and flicking him back to his den with his pocket handkerchief, showing his fearlessness and his knowledge of leonine nature.

Another tale is told of his intervention between fighting dogs and leopards, he dragging the infuriated leopards back to their cage by their collars—and fainting when the feat was accomplished, for his was not a burly frame, and his heart was in a threatening condition.

An element of humour mingles with the gruesome in Sir B. W. Richardson’s account of the ruse employed to cheat watchful executors, and obtain the body of O’Brien the Irish Giant, so as to convert it into the skeleton now in the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, Lincoln’s Inn.

Those were the days when surgeons were not particular where they obtained subjects for their scalpels, whether from the resurrection men or from the gallows, and John Hunter was not more dainty than his fellows. But also from travelling shows and menageries, and from animals that died in the Tower he was supplied. And so rapidly did his museum grow, absorbing the bulk of his income, that ere long he had to remove to what is now Leicester Square, and erect a building in the rear for his collection.

Honours fell upon him thickly as they had fallen on his brother, alike British and foreign, of which he took little heed, absorbed as he was in the pursuit of knowledge, and its demonstration. His discoveries placed him far ahead of the science of his time, though his courtly brother, earlier in the field and first to leave it, ran him close. Indeed their final quarrel and alienation arose out of a disputed claim to a certain discovery in feminine physiology, brought before the Royal Society, a quarrel which transferred William’s museum to the University of Glasgow, and excluded John from his will.

The so-called “Lyceum Medicum” in Leicester Square, became the home of the “Society for the Improvement of Medical and Chirurgical Knowledge,” and the “Philosophical Transactions” of the Society testify to the genius and untiring activity of its promoter. How he found time for his many written essays and discourses on topics wide apart as “Gunshot-wounds” and “Teeth” is a marvel. No wonder the frail human machine wore out so early. He had worked when he should have rested, worked regardless of premonitions and attacks John Hunter must have well understood, and died at last at sixty-two, a victim of one of those fits of passion no man with a diseased heart can indulge in safely.

Setting out originally from the tablet in Westminster Abbey to describe what manner of man was the old doctor who lay beneath, it became imperatively necessary to bracket the two brothers, John and William Hunter, together, since, according to Sir B. W. Richardson, they were “twins in science,” if not in birth. Had not William already come to the front when John sought him out, he could not have been his teacher, or given his younger brother his first start in life, his introduction, or his facilities for study. Then they worked together, became one in anatomical discovery, in their zeal for collecting all that illustrated their theories, all that was rare and curious, into unprecedented museums. Yet how widely the personalities of the brothers differed. They both stood out among contemporaries, yet William, with his slight form, mildly refined face, set off by an unpretentious wig, and delicate hands, under lace ruffles, and wide coat cuffs, a classical scholar, an antiquary, a numismatist, as well as a naturalist,—Queen Charlotte’s medical referee, stepping out from his chariot, gold cane in hand, to visit his courtly patients, was the very beau ideal of a fashionable physician of that day, one who shone in drawing-rooms as well as in the lecture-hall. Blue-eyed John, with high cheek bones, broad, slightly receding forehead, tangled red hair, and a shaggy mane of whisker that made his keen face a triangle, tender of heart, yet brusque and coarse of speech, rough in manner as in dress (with not a sign of frill or ruffle), despising dilettante coteries, not squeamish in seeking “subjects,” passionate and determined, caring little for empty honours, for money only to swell his museum, and nothing for courtly circles, though created surgeon-extraordinary to George III., and owing his large practice solely to the force of his character, his science, and his skill. So far he was his brother’s antithesis. John was a diamond in the rough; William the gem cut and polished. And such were the two old doctors to whom England’s College of Surgeons owes its Hunterian Museum; the University of Glasgow the other. Had not the brothers quarrelled, the two would have formed one grand unrivalled collection.

Space is limited, and so must be our notes of these other celebrated “old doctors,” whom it would be invidious to overlook. Of these Edward Jenner stands prominently out, but he has been already dealt with by another hand.

It is scarcely possible to pass by John Abernethy, f.r.s., the eccentric physician, whose principle was that men should eat to live, not live to eat, who maintained that the stomach was the chief seat of health or disease, according as it was used or abused, and that water was the one natural and nutrient beverage. The practical way in which he illustrated his theories respecting overfeeding,—filling a pail with food from various dishes in correspondence with the heterogeneous mixture on his patients’ plates—and his brusque replies to some other of his patients, have perpetuated his name through his oddities, rather than as a benefactor of his kind, who revolutionized the medical practice of his time, and of course excited envy and antagonism. His hair, kept together at the nape of the neck with a ribbon tie, was brushed back from his forehead, and added a degree of sharpness to his somewhat hatchet-shaped face, when he told the timorous lady who was “afraid she had swallowed a spider,” “Then put a fly in your mouth, madam, and the spider will come up to catch him.” Or when he threw the shilling from his fee back to a mother with a delicate daughter, “Take that, madam, and buy her a skipping-rope,” an intimation that exercise was needed. It was an age of coarse feeding and strong drinking, an age of drastic purges and much blood-letting, and Abernethy’s temperance principles, so much in advance of his time, provoked considerable opposition from his medical brethren, whose satirical epigrams he was not slow to cap.

But contemporary squibs and satires cannot affect the real good which has made Abernethy’s name a household word. Indeed it has been stamped upon a biscuit. It is stamped also on a medical society he founded at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, where his centenary has recently been celebrated.

Many have been the contributions to scientific medicine and surgery since the rough days of the old doctors I have endeavoured to chronicle, but these men of wigs and ties, gold-headed canes and pouncet-boxes, breeches and buckled shoes, were the pioneers of progress, they cleared the way for the men of this day and generation, and left their mark on their own age, not to be effaced by newer and more advanced successors, to whom they have served as stepping-stones.