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[No. 37 of a Decennial Series.]
APRIL 1, TO JULY 1, 1843.
THE LIFE OF SIR ASTLEY COOPER, BART. INTERSPERSED WITH SKETCHES FROM HIS NOTE BOOKS OF DISTINGUISHED CONTEMPORARY CHARACTERS. By Bransby Blake Cooper, Esq. F.R.S. In two Volumes 8vo. with a Portrait. J. W. Parker, West Strand, London, 1843.
ALTHOUGH medicine can boast of many illustrious characters among the dead, and some among the living, yet, considering the prodigious masses of which our profession has consisted, and which are still increasing in numbers as well as dimensions, these STARS of the first magnitude, that shed their light over both hemispheres, are not too numerous.
"Apparent RARI nantes in gurgite vasto."
Over nine hundred and ninety-nine, out of every thousand of the labourers in the great medical vineyard, oblivion waves its sable wing almost as soon as the last breath has exhaled from the body! Nay, nine-tenths of those who have a considerable name in their day, sink into the same oblivious ocean in a very few years after their mortal remains are deposited in the tomb. We are aware that no reputation, however high, or however extensive, can save the physician or surgeon from this gloomy fate-unless he leaves behind him some imperishable memorial of his talents or industry. The name of Hippocrates or Celsus would not have descended on the stream of time, had not they committed their observations and reflections to the parchment scroll, to be afterwards multiplied by the press.
Sir A. Cooper is not a man whose name will sink into obscurity and soon become annihilated. His great works on Hernia, Dislocations, and the Mamma alone, will bear his fame to posterity; but the vast mass of his actions, thoughts, observations, reflections, and remarks on others, would have sunk into oblivion, had not his amiable and talented nephew rescued them from destruction and diffused them throughout Europe and America. The biography of a man who has risen from obscurity to resplendent fame is highly interesting to all classes of readers, and the curiosity to learn the steps by which the pinnacle of reputation has been gained, strongly pervades every breast-especially within the pale of the profession. Mr. Cooper has been blamed for separating the history of his uncle's pro
fessional writings, from that of his professional life. We think the disjunction was a wise and prudent procedure. The writings of Sir Astley are well known to the medical world :-they would not be read or understood by the general reader. To both classes their introduction in these volumes would have proved a heavy and useless clog on the narrative. With these few premonitory remarks, we shall proceed to draw up a concentrated sketch of the life of this remarkable personage-a man who was courted, praised, consulted, and admired by every class of society, from the proud and fastidious REGENT of these realms, down to the reckless dealer in dead men's bodies-the squalid RESURRECTION-MAN.
We shall not trace the genealogy of Sir Astley Cooper. He was descended from ADAM-and the haughty Autocrats of Russia and Austria, can claim no higher pedigree. It is for HIM of the Celestial Empire to call the Moon his brother; but we of the terrestrial globe see no honour in the fraternity of LUNATICS.
The father of Sir Astley was a highly respectable clergyman of Norfolk, who wrangled at Cambridge, and came out with honours. His mother wrote many works, after her marriage-besides the labour of bearing and rearing a large family. Master Astley (for so we must, for some time call him) was born in August 1768, and, for some unknown reason, was put out to be nursed-the only one of the family who could boast of a fostermother. Mrs. Cooper, his mother, instructed him in the rudiments of knowledge or rather learning-till he was placed under the parish pedagogue," and no one did him less credit than the young Sir Astley." 45. The hero of our memoir displayed anything but assiduity or attention to study; but, on the other hand, he studied with infinite success, every kind of freak and frolic that high animal spirits and exuberant health could prompt a juvenile rural lad to accomplish. He could rob orchards-plunder gardens-climb the loftiest trees-walk along the roofs of houses-ride horses without saddle or bridle, guiding them with a stick go up chimnies with the agility of a sweep-and astonish the natives by imitating their cries and rattles. Yet his tricks, though sometimes slightly mischievous and annoying, were never wicked, malicious, or ill-natured--they were often useful, as the following anecdote (which we abridge) will shew. The grave-digger of Yarmouth had a most termagant wife, who led him the life of a dog, especially when drunk, which was too often the case. One night when Mrs. Bacon was far more than half-seas over, and had chased her husband out of the house, Master Astley, dressed up in the character of his Satanic majesty, entered the mansion, and presented himself before the astonished and somewhat alarmed Xantippe. Under the soothing address of the youthful devil, and the potent effects of an unusual cargo of gin, the termagant plucked up Dutch courage, and entered into familiar confabulation with the supposed monarch of the nether regions. The latter promised, as usual, all kinds of pleasure and ample independence to the sexton's wife, and contrived, on parting, to slip a piece of money into her hand. A sound sleep followed the gin potations and the Satanic audience; but, on awaking next morning, when the alcoholic fumes had exhaled-when memory reproduced the preceding evening's negociation-and when the bribe was found on the table-then the horrors of despair and remorse overwhelmed the wretched tipler, and even the stimu
lus of Usquebaugh failed to brace the nerves of one who had taken the enlisting fee from the father of evil!!
Now, although this (literally speaking) was a Devilish trick of Master Astley; the reformation which followed in the grave-digger's rib might well atone for the temporary personification of infernal royalty which the youngster assumed.
The anecdote of young Astley's staunching a wounded artery in his foster-brother's arm by winding a handkerchief round the limb, à la tourniquet, is well known, and need not here be detailed. Whether this incident had any share in leading the young harum-scarum Cooper to prefer surgery to divinity, we have much doubt, though we do not deny the influence which it may have exerted. But "Paulo majora canamus."
At the age of 16 and in the year 1784, he accompanied his uncle, Mr. Cooper, Surgeon of Guy's Hospital, to London, and to him became an articled pupil. He resided, however, in the house of Mr. Cline, who then took a few professional boarders, and the society of this distinguished surgeon pleased young Cooper much more than that of his uncle. It appears that Master Astley had very much neglected his classical, and almost entirely his mathematical education; but his career, and still more that of John Hunter, shew how much these original deficiencies may be compensated in after-life by vigorous intellects and "improbus labor." It is very doubtful whether the genius of John Hunter would have ever become so conspicuous, had his mind been trained in classical, mathematical, and polite literature, which would have intervened materially with the blood and dirt of the dissecting-room.
Cline was well known to be a Deist in religion, and a Democrat in politics. But he was an honest and an honourable man-and far superior to Mr. Cooper, the surgeon of Guy's, both in operative surgery, general information, and private practice. It is not much to be wondered at, that young Astley contrived to have his indentures to his uncle cancelled, and to transfer them to the rival surgeon of St. Thomas's. Among the short characteristics which Sir Astley has left of his contemporaries, we find the following of Cline.
"Mr. Cline was a man of excellent judgment, of great caution, of accurate knowledge; particularly taciturn abroad, yet open, friendly, and very conversationable at home.
'In surgery, cool, safe, judicious, and cautious; in anatomy, sufficiently informed for teaching and practice. He wanted industry and professional zeal, liking other things better than the study or practice of his profession.
'In politics, a democrat, living in friendship with Horne Tooke.* "In morals, thoroughly honest; in religion, a Deist.
A good husband, son, and father.
'As a friend, sincere, but not active; as an enemy, most inveterate.
"Mr. Cline's name is mentioned in the following flattering manner, in the second part of the Diversions of Purley :
B-What can you set up, in matter of language, against the decisive authority of such a writer as Horace?
⚫ Quem penes arbitrium est et jus et norma loquendi.'