An old and respected pupil

“It is as much commendation as any man can bear, to own him
excellent; all beyond it is idolatry.”—DRYDEN.

It has been stated by an acute observer that it was impossible for
any man to be with Abernethy, even for a short time, without feeling
that he was in communion with no common mind; and it was just, I
think, the first effect he produced. In person, he was of middle
stature, and well proportioned for strength and activity. He had a most
interesting countenance; it combined the character of a philosopher and
a philanthropist, lighted up by cheerfulness and humour. It was not
that his features were particularly well formed or handsome, though
there was not a bad one in the whole countenance; but the harmony of
composition (if we may be allowed the expression) was so perfect.

A sufficiently high and ample forehead towered over two of the most
observant and expressive eyes I almost ever saw. People differ about
colour; they appeared to me always of a greyish-blue, and were
characterized as the rule by a mirthful yet piercing expression, from
which an overlaying of benevolence was seldom wanting; yet, as we have
before observed, they would sometimes launch forth gleams of humour,
anger, or pathos, as the case might be, which were such as the term
dramatic can alone convey.

There was another expression of his eye which was very characteristic;
it was when his benevolence was excited without the means of gratifying
it, as would sometimes happen in the case of hospital patients, for
whom he wanted good air, and things which their position did not
allow them to procure. He would in this case step a pace or two from
the bed, throw his head a little aside, and, talking to the dresser,
exhibit an expression of deep feeling which was extremely peculiar; it
was a mixture of suffering, of impatience, and sympathy; but the force
which the scene drew from the dramatic character of his expressive
countenance is entirely lost in the mere relation. If, at such times,
he gave utterance to a few words, they were always extremely touching
and expressive. On an occasion, for example, like the following, these
characters were combined. A woman came into the hospital to have an
operation performed; and Abernethy, as was his invariable custom, took
some time to get her health into a more favourable condition. When the
day for the operation was at hand, the dresser informed him that she
was about to quit the hospital.

“Why, my good woman,” said Abernethy, “what a fool you must be to come
here to have an operation performed; and now, just as you are in a fit
state for it, to go out again.” Somebody here whispered to him that her
father in the country “was dying.” With a burst of indignation, his
eyes flashing fire, he turned to the dresser, and said: “You fool, why
did you not tell me this before?” Then, after a moment or two looking
at the patient, he went from the foot up to the side of the bed, and
said in the kindest tone possible: “Yes, my good woman, you shall go
out immediately; you may come back again when you please, and I will
take all the care I can of you.”

Now there was nothing in all this, perhaps; but his manner gave it
immense force. And I remember one of the old pupils saying to me: “How
kind he was to that woman; upon my soul, I could hardly help crying.”

Abernethy exemplified a very rare and powerful combination of
intellectual qualities. He had a perception of the facts of a subject
at once rapid, penetrating, and comprehensive, and a power of analysis
which immediately elicited those relations which were most important to
the immediate objects of the investigation; a power, of course, of the
utmost value in a practical profession.

This faculty was never more marvellously displayed than sometimes in
doubtful or difficult cases; and this had been always a striking
excellence in him, even when a young man. I recollect hearing my
father say, that to see Abernethy to advantage, you must observe him
when roused by some difficulty, and in a case where other men were
at fault, or puzzled. It was just so; his penetrating mind seemed to
remove to either side at once what was foreign or doubtful, and go
straight to the point with which alone he had to grapple. Allied to
this, if not part of it, was that suggestive power which he possessed
in so remarkable a degree, and which by a kind of intuition seemed
to single out those pertinent relations and inquiries which the
judgment is to examine, and reject, or approve, as the case may be; a
faculty absolutely necessary to success in endeavours at extending the
boundaries of a science. He was thus sometimes enabled, as has been
shown, to convert facts to the highest purposes, in aid of practical
improvement, which, with an ordinary observer, would have passed

These qualities, combined with a memory, as we have seen, peculiarly
ready, capacious, and retentive, placed his resources at once at
hand for practical application. Then, while his quick perception of
relation always supplied him with abundant analogies, his imaginative
faculty enabled him to illustrate, enforce, and adorn them with such a
multitude and variety of illustration as seemed well-nigh inexhaustible.

Of his humour we have already spoken; but the same properties which
served him so well in more important matters were really, as it appears
to us, the foundation of much of that humour by which his conversation
was characterized—we mean his quick perception of relation, and his
marvellously retentive memory. Many of the things that he said, “told,”
not because they were original, so much as that they were ready at
hand; not because they were intrinsically good, as so apposite in
application; and, lastly, because they were further assisted by his
inimitable manner. Nevertheless, sometimes his quick perception would
be characterized by a corresponding felicity of expression. Bartleman
was an intimate friend of Abernethy’s; and those who remember the
magnificent voice and peculiarly chaste style of that celebrated
singer, will appreciate the felicity of the expression applied to him
by Abernethy, when he said, “Bartleman is an orator in music.”

Abernethy had the talent of conveying, by his manner, and apparently
without the smallest effort, that which in the drama is scarcely known
but as the result of constant and careful study. It was a manner
which no analysis of his character can convey, of which none of his
own compositions even give an adequate idea. The finest colours are
often the most fugitive. This is just the case with that heightened
expression which we term dramatic. Who can express in words the
thrilling effect that an earnest, heartfull delivery of a single phrase
has sometimes conveyed. But brilliant as these endowments were, they
were graced by moral qualities of the first order.

Quick as he was to see everything, he was necessarily rapid in his
perception of character, and would sometimes at a glance hit on the
leading influence of this always difficult assemblage of phenomena,
with the same rapidity that marked his dealings with facts which were
the more usual objects of his inquiries. But, though quick in his
perception of character, and therefore rapidly detective of faults, his
views were always tempered by generosity and good sense. Indignant at
injustice and oppression, and intolerant only of baseness or cruelty,
he was kind and charitable in his construction of more common or
excusable failings.

He loved man as his brother, and, with enlarged ideas of the duties of
benevolence, never dispensed it as a gift which it was creditable to
bestow, so much as an obligation which it would have been immoral to
have omitted. It was not that he did anything which the world calls
noble or great in giving sums of money to this or that person. There
were, indeed, plenty of instances of that sort of generosity and
benevolence, which would creep out, in spite of him, from those whom he
had benefited; and no man knew how to do it better. A gentleman, for
example, came up from the country to the school, and went to Bedford
Row, to enter the lectures. Abernethy asked him a few questions about
his intentions and his prospects, and found that his proceedings would
be little doubtful, as they were contingent on the receipt of some
funds which were uncertain. Abernethy gave him a perpetual ticket
to all his own lectures. “And what made so much impression on me,”
said the gentleman, “was, that instead of paying me less attention,
in asking me to his house, than the other pupils, if there were any
difference, he paid me rather more.” We have seen this gentleman within
a few days, and we are happy to say he has had a happy and prosperous

The benevolence, however, to which we allude, was not merely shown
in giving or remitting money; that, indeed, would be a marvellous
overcoming of the world with many people, but not with Abernethy;
his benevolence was no fitful suggestion of impulse, but a steadily
glowing principle of action, never obtrusive, but always ready when
required. It has been said, “a good man’s life is a constant prayer.”
It may be asserted that a good surgeon’s life should be a gentle
stream of benevolent sympathies, supporting and distributing the
conscientious administration of the duties of his profession. That this
really intrinsic part of his character should have been occasionally
overlaid by unkindness of manner, is, indeed, much to be regretted;
and, we believe, was subsequently deplored by no one more sincerely
than himself, and those who most loved and respected him. The faults
of ordinary acquaintances are taken as matters of course; but the
errors of those who are the objects of our respect and affection, are
always distressing. We feel them almost as a personal wrong; and, in a
character like Abernethy, where every spot on so fair a surface became
luminously evident, such defects gave one a feeling of mortification
which was at once humiliating and oppressive. But, whilst we are the
last to conceal his failings, we cannot but think he was, after all,
himself the greatest sufferer; we have no doubt they originated, at
least, in good motives, and that they have been charged, after all,
with much good.

Unfortunately, we have at all times had too many Gnathos in our
profession, too much of the

“Quidquid dicunt laudo, id rursum si negant, laudo id quoque.
Negat quis? nego. ait? aio.”

These assenting flatterers are the bane of an honest man, and, under
the name of tact and the influence of an uncompromising ambition to
get on, merge the highest duties into a mere desire to please; and,
adopting the creed of Gnatho, appropriately arrive at the same climax
as their conclusion:

“Postremo imperavi egomet mihi
Omnia assentari.”

Now, Abernethy knew this well, and detested it with a repulsion deep
and sincere. He had no knowledge of Gnathonics. He felt that he was
called on to practise a profession, the legitimate object of which
was alone achieved when it ministered to real suffering; and that
mere assentation to please patients was a prostitution of the highest
qualities of mind to the lowest purposes. If one may so say, he felt
like a painter who has a feeling for the highest department of his art,
and who could see nothing in an assenting Gnathonicism but an immoral

Neither was this without use to others; for though he looked, as the
public may be assured many others have done, on a “parcel of people
who came to him with nothing the matter,” yet even in his roughness he
was discriminate, and sometimes accomplished more good than the most
successful time-server by all his lubricity. One day, for example, a
lady took her daughter, evidently most tightly laced—a practice which
we believe mothers now are aware is mischievous, but scarcely to the
extent known to medical men. She complained of Abernethy’s rudeness to
her, as well she might; still he gave her, in a few words, a useful
lesson. “Why, madam,” said he, “do you know there are upwards of thirty
yards of bowels squeezed underneath that girdle of your daughter’s? Go
home and cut it, let Nature have fair play, and you will have no need
of my advice.”

But, if we must acknowledge and regret, as we do, his occasional
rudenesses of manner, let us also give him the credit of overcoming
these besetting impulses. In all hospitals, of course, there are
occasional vexations; but who ever saw Abernethy really unkind to
a hospital patient? Now, we cannot affirm any thing beyond our own
experience. We had, as dresser, for a considerable period, the care
of many of his patients, and we continued frequently to observe his
practice from the commencement of our pupilage, which was about a year
or a little more after his appointment as surgeon, until the close of
his hospital labours. We speak subject to correction, therefore, but
we cannot charge our memory with a single instance of unkindness to
a hospital patient; whilst we are deeply impressed by the constant
prevalence of a generally kind and unaffected sympathy with them.

The quickness with which he observed any imperfection in the execution
of his directions, was, on the contrary, the source of many a “rowing,”
as we apprehend some of his dressers well enough remember; whilst he
seldom took a dresser without making more than usual inquiries as
to his competency. In private practice, also, any case that really
required skill and discrimination was pretty sure to meet with the
attention that it deserved. This was noticed in the remarks made on
the character of Abernethy, at the time of his death, by the Duke of
Sussex, at the Royal Society, at their anniversary meeting on the 30th
of November, 1831, of which the following is a report, copied from the
books of the Society:

His Royal Highness observed that “Mr. Abernethy was one of those
pupils of John Hunter who appears the most completely to have
caught the bold and philosophical spirit of his great master. He
was the author of various works and memoirs upon physiological
and anatomical or surgical subjects, including papers which have
appeared in our Transactions. Few persons have contributed more
abundantly to the establishment of the true principles of surgery
and medical science in those cases which require that minute
criticism of the symptoms of disease, upon the proper knowledge and
study of which the perfection of medical art must mainly depend.

“As a lecturer, he was not less distinguished than as an author;
and he appears to have attained the art of fixing strongly
the attention of his hearers, not less by the just authority
of his opinions than by his ready command of apt and forcible
illustrations. He enjoyed, during many years of his life, more
than an ordinary share of public favour in the practice of
his profession; and, though not a little remarkable for the
eccentricities of his manner and an affected roughness in his
intercourse with his ordinary patients, he was generally kind and
courteous in those cases which required the full exercise of his
skill and knowledge, and also liberal in the extreme when the
infliction of poverty was superadded to those of disease.”

The high character of his benevolence was shown also in the ready
forgiveness of injuries; and he was as grateful as he was forgiving.
How constant his attachment to his early friend and teacher, Sir
William Blizard. There is something very characteristic of this, when,
in the decline of life, he writes “Yours unremittingly,” to one whose
unusually lengthened years had enabled him to witness Abernethy’s entry
into life, and, at the conclusion of the labours of his distinguished
pupil, to join with a public body in expressing the high sense
entertained of the obligations which he had conferred on science and
mankind. Few men could have been placed in positions more trying than
that in which he found himself in his controversy with Mr. Lawrence.
When the time arrived at which, in the ordinary course, that gentleman
would have been elected into the Council of the College, there was a
very strong feeling on the part of some of the members against his
admission. Abernethy, however, proposed him himself, and it was by his
casting vote that the election terminated in Mr. Lawrence’s favour.

A member of the Council having expressed his surprise that Mr.
Abernethy should propose a gentleman with whom he had had so unpleasant
a difference—”What has that to do with it?” rejoined Abernethy. Some
friends of Mr. Lawrence wished to pay that gentleman the compliment of
having his portrait drawn, and a subscription was to be entered into
for this purpose. It was suggested that it would be very desirable to
get Mr. Abernethy to allow his name to be in the list; and our friend,
Mr. Kingdon[88], with the best intentions no doubt, ventured to ask
Mr. Abernethy to put his name at _the head_ of the list. But there was
nothing of Quixotism in Abernethy. He would have been very glad to do
a kind thing to anybody; and any obstacle affecting him personally
was much more likely to be an argument in favour than otherwise. He
liked justice for its own sake; but he was circumspect as well as
penetrative. At first he seemed inclined to do it, but asked a day
to consider of it; and then wrote the following letter, into a more
particular examination of which we need not enter:


“My dear sir,

“‘_Fiat Justitia_’ is, as I flatter myself, the rule of my conduct.
At all times have I expressed my approbation and respect for
William Lawrence, on account of his professional learning, and of
his ability as a writer and public speaker. But, if I do what you
would have me, I should do much more, and be made to appear as
a leader in a scheme the object of which is indefinite; so that
persons will be at liberty to put what construction they please
upon my conduct. Being desirous of doing what you wish, I have been
for some time in a state of perplexity and hesitation.

“At length I have resolved—that since I cannot determine what
ought to be done—to follow a useful rule of professional conduct,
and to do nothing. Vexed to refuse you anything, I hope you will
still believe me,

“My dear sir,
“Your obliged and very sincere friend,

The question of how far letters are to be relied on as expositions of
character, has been much discussed.

The remarks of Dr. Johnson on the subject, in his Life of Pope, are put
with great force, and almost carry us with him; but, on reflection,
they appear too general; they do not, perhaps, get close enough to the
question in which the student in Biography is chiefly interested.

Although letters obviously afford opportunities for a variety of
affectation—and Pope seems to have seldom been quite natural—yet we
cannot think that “friendship has no tendency to produce veracity.”
But it seems impossible to generalize on the subject. We might as well
ask whether oral evidence is to be relied on. There is no one quality
that we can think of that can be said to be so universally distributed
in letters as to be safe to generalize on. Common sense tells us that
the testimony they give may be false or true. They are, like witnesses,
capable of telling truth, but having, under different circumstances,
all the characters of all other kinds of witnesses. Strictly, the
dependence one would place on them would be on the abstract probability
of that which they suggest; or as supported by any corroborative

The following is a note to his daughter, the late Mrs. Warburton,
thanking her for a watch-chain:

“Bedford Row,
“Sept. 30.

“My dear Anne,

“I am quite accablé by the liberality of the Dr. and yourself; but
I’ve been thinking that the Dr. is leading me into temptation,
and that you are spending your money for an ornament which will
never be seen, and which will only increase my apprehensions of
having my pocket picked. However, what is meant in kindness should
be received according to its design. Thus occasionally shall I
taste the old rum; though, according to the phrase of the Doctor’s
schoolfellow (who reiterated that the wine was capital), blue
ruin might have done as well. Thus also shall I wear the chain in
remembrance of a chain which attaches me to you; one forged by
Nature, and riveted by your good conduct and excellent disposition.

“I am, my dear Anne,
“Your affectionate and attached


“My dear Anne,

“Sir James, becoming a Governor, observed, he could not be both
master and servant, and therefore _must_ relinquish his labours. I
was three hours going round the hospital for the first time. It is
Sir James’s taking-in day on Thursday. The admitted patients must
be seen on Friday. I cannot leave town until Saturday, unless Mrs.
A.[89] pleases to encounter the chance of sleeping on the road. I
suppose she will have luggage; and I cannot in reason allow less
than seven hours, with a rest of two to Miss Jenny, with such
additional weight.

“I wish you had seen Dr. Powell; not that I believe he could do
aught more than your own reason would suggest, or else you should
never, with my goodwill, have gone to Southend. I know nought
of —— Could you not return by water? By engaging a suitable
vessel, the whole party might then be transported—ay, even to
Putney. I should think ten or twelve pounds well bestowed on such
a desideratum. Do not think of expense; for money cannot be put in
competition with your welfare. If you are healthy and long-lived, I
should be surprised if the children were not good and prosperous. I
say nothing about myself, because I am no Professor, although they
so nickname me.

“Yours in all events,

The following has some points of interest. The reason why merciful; the
observance of approved custom in shutting up the house; yet connecting
so much of “forms, modes, shows of grief,” as Hamlet calls them,
with the best feelings, because “she had loved you,” &c.; the gentle
tenderness with which he alludes to the excellence of the Mother;
and the graceful compliment with which he concludes; seem excellent

“My dear Anne,

“I am much concerned to tell you that your Grandmother died last
night, about nine o’clock. Death came to her unattended with pain
or terrors. It is highly probable that she neither felt uneasiness
of body or mind, from the time she was first seized with the fit.
To have lived to her age, respectably and respected, in health,
and to die without bodily or mental sufferings, is a fate which
falls but to the lot of few; so that her friends have no reason to
repine at her death; and it seems to be a merciful dispensation
of Providence. If the servant has left Putney for Radcliff, of
course the house is shut up; if not, it ought to be so. You and
the children ought also to stay within doors, and have the front
windows closed. She loved you all very much, and you ought to
love and respect her memory. To you, who are apt to indulge your
feelings too much, I must add, that it would be wrong to grieve
much for what is in reality, as I have said, a cause to rejoice.
I mean that the pains and decrepitude of age should be spared to
the Individual whose fate we mourn. I have always esteemed it
an excellence in your Mother’s character, that though she feels
acutely, yet she bears her lot in the dispensations of Providence
with a gentleness and submission which indeed serve to diminish
their severity. I trust she will do so on this occasion. You will
see her to-morrow at Putney, if not before. On all occasions, and
under every circumstance, rely on it that I remain

“Most affectionately yours,

“Bedford Row,
“Friday Morning, August, 1812.”



“The first incident worth relating happened at Cirencester. I
hobbled in haste to Mr. Lawrence’s; his dressing room was open,
and articles of apparel, &c. lay about, as if he had been lately
engaged in the (to some agreeable, to others annoying) operation
of dressing himself. His maid servant, however, sought him in
vain, even in the church-yard. She looked mysterious and alarmed.
‘Perhaps,’ said I, ‘he is gone to Mr. Warner’s.’ Sure enough there
he was, examining a shoulder said to have been dislocated; and
he would make me examine it likewise. So much time having been
lost as to the object of my visit, I had merely time to tell him
that you were at Cheltenham, and would come to see him; and he
to tell me that Mrs. Lawrence was at Malvern. The guard sounded
his tin horn in an imperative manner; the sound was repeated, and
I received a verbal reproof from the coachman for not instantly
obeying the summons. A little way out of Cirencester, on the road
to Tetbury, there is a neat and stile-ish house and grounds which
I anticipated belonged to Charles Lawrence; and my presentiment
was confirmed by a Compagnon de Voyage. Arrived at the York House,
Bath, I was shown into a bed-room which had not been dusted, as
you would think, properly since a fortnight before the fire. So,
with the fear of bugs and other blood-sucking insects, I took
up those of the papilionacious tribe belonging to Mr. Marriott,
and proceeded to his abode; approaching which, I encountered Mr.
Wood. By his recommendation, I procured apartments in a house,
as Bourdillon would say, the entirety of which could only be
obtained by persons in general. Behold me, then, sole occupant
of a spacious and well-furnished house (being No. 9, St. James’s
Square), with a garden terminating in a road, beyond which fields
only are visible, and within ken of the brow of Lansdown. The
front and back rooms communicate, and the windows of each being
open, there is perflation in excess. (Diary.) Monday. Descending
Gay Street, in my way to the bath, I called at Soden’s, and found
him in great distress, and that Hodgson had gone forth to seek
for me. Mrs. Soden is very ill, and Hodgson had come once to
see her. She has lots of medical attendants, who, to use ——’s
phrase, dovetail their opinions and practice before they prescribe
for their patient. In perambulating Bath with Mr. Hodgson, we
encountered Mr. Leifchild, who recited his case to the former,
in proof of the efficacy of diet, with the eloquence of a public
orator; and it happened to be a case in point. I scrubbed myself
for half an hour, and drank half a pint of water at the pump room;
then reascended the hill; looked in at Wilson Brown’s, whose wife
is quite well. No doubt the state of her digestive organs was the
source of her various maladies. Her father, Dr. Chichester, whom
you saw at Mr. Acres’, now resides at Cheltenham. I went with Mr.
Brown to the Riding School, thinking that if I could meet with a
kind of shooting pony, I might be tempted to get on his back. But
I escaped temptation, dined on mutton chop or chops, drank half a
pint of ale, felt quiet, dosed a little. Descended to Queen Square;
left a card for Sir George Gibbs, who is at Weymouth; called on Mr.
Gore, who had been called out to a casualty (Bath phrase); went to
the White Hart, found the coach did not come in until nine o’clock;
thinking that if I did not see Mr. Battiscombe until then, we
should both be as weary of seeing each other as of the day’s toil,
I reascended the hill, and went to bed. It was necessary that a
day should elapse, that I might tell you how time passed; so that
I have complied with your request of writing as soon as possible.
No doubt that the days will be so monotonous as to render a second
account unnecessary. I calculate I shall be tout-à-fait ennuyé in a
fortnight; so that I expect I shall set off to Cheltenham, in the
coach I came by, next Monday sennight, which I believe will arrive
there about eight or nine in the evening, when I hope to find
you all well. On Friday I think we might visit Oxford, and house
ourselves again at the Angel; from whence, if we start at nine, we
may be in London by four o’clock on Saturday.

“I think I have written a ladylike letter: no attempt at
condensation. I hope to hear from you in return, and that you will
be able to say all’s well. I will write to Anne to-morrow, because
you say she wishes it—perhaps to-day.

“Love to Miss Moggy and Miss Madge.

“Yours for ever and for aye,

“Bath, 8th September, 1828.”

He was fond of joining in anything that could delight and amuse his
children. In summer, when he returned home, the “upstairs bell” was
generally the signal for the young people to come to have a game of
play. Of games, battledore and shuttlecock was a favourite, at which he
was as expert and pleased as any of them. Sometimes there would be a
petition for stories; and he would delight them all by little histories
or tales, in which he appears to have shown the same talent as he did
in his lectures. The same stories were often repeated, yet they always
had something of the fun or freshness, as the case might be, of things
that were heard for the first time. One Christmas, the family, desirous
of amusing some friends, proposed to get up some private theatricals.
The anxious question being, what papa would say to it? Well, this was
very soon known, by a ready assent. But what was the play to be? They
replied, “The Iron Chest.” But now rather an important difficulty
arose, of who was to take the part of Sir Edward Mortimer? This was as
unexpectedly as joyfully solved, by Mr. Abernethy taking it himself.

But, of all the home sports to which he seems to have given such zest,
all yielded to the superior attractions of the Magic lantern. This was
generally a gambol reserved for Christmas, when the whole establishment
were admitted. The fun lay in the number and variety of the stories and
remarks which accompanied the optical illustrations.

Every “slide” had remarks and stories made off-hand, which, as stories
were of this or that kind, either greatly increased the interest or
were the occasion of hearty merriment or peals of laughter.

He was very fond of the country and his garden, and nothing he enjoyed
more than driving down to Enfield with Mr. Clift, and having a holiday.
On such occasions, sometimes, even before he went into the house he
would set to work in the garden. They used both to be very active in
cutting out the dead wood from the laurels and other shrubs. In these
domestic operations the children would assist without any of the party
recollecting that bonnets and gowns were not the best costume for
making way amongst the trees and shrubs, which, however, only assisted
to increase the fun and excitement. At other times, there would be an
expedition against the duck-weed on the water. In short, he always
seems to have been the life of the party, and to have invested even the
most ordinary occupations with liveliness and interest, for which he
was certainly gifted with unwonted powers. Occasionally he would go to
the theatre, which he sometimes enjoyed very much. Like his brother,
he was a great lover of our immortal Shakspeare, and scarcely less
familiar with most of the wonderful creations of his mighty genius.

When we contemplate Abernethy in a single phase only of his character,
we see a “fidgetty” physical organization, influencing an habitual
irritability of which it was too much a supporter, if it were not
the original cause; but the moment we penetrate this thin and only
occasional covering, we meet with nothing but rare and splendid
endowments; and, as we proceed in our examination, we are at a loss
which most to admire, the brilliant qualities of his intellect, or the
moral excellences of his heart.

But, in estimating the one or the other, we must view them in relation
to the other feelings with which they were accompanied, as impeding
or assisting their development and application; or otherwise we shall
hardly estimate in its due force the powers of that volition over which
the moral sense so constantly presides.

Abernethy had considerable love of approbation—a quality which,
regarded in a religious point of view, may be said to embrace all
others; but it is one which, in the ordinary relations of life, is apt
to dilute the character, bringing down the mind from the contemplation
of more elevated motives to the level of those suggested by worldly
considerations and conventionalisms. To one shy, even to timidity,
and whose organization fitted him rather for the rapid movements of a
penetrative and impulsive perception, than the more dogged perseverance
of sustained labour, love of approbation, even in the ordinary
application of it, might have been a useful stimulus in maintaining
exertion; and we believe it was. Yet, though he avowed it as a dominant
principle in our nature, as the great “incentive” to human action, he
never sought it but by legitimate channels; nor, potential as its
influences might have been, when sharpened by shyness and timidity, did
he hesitate one moment to throw them all aside whenever the interests
of truth or justice rendered it necessary.

When Mr. Hunter’s views were little noticed, less understood, and
apparently in danger of being forgotten—when the more speculative
of his views were not even known as his by any _published_
documents—when, therefore, in addition to other objections, he
was, as we have seen, subjected to the imputation of advocating
opinions as Hunter’s, of which there was no other testimony than the
precarious memories of contemporaries,—he stood boldly forward as
the fearless, earnest, and eloquent advocate of John Hunter. In this
case, he overcome his natural dislike to contest and publicity, and
encountered just that individualizing opposition which is most trying
to a sensitive organization; exemplifying a rare tribute of truth and
justice paid by genius to the claims of a departed brother. At the
same time, the power he displayed of moulding views, scarcely even
acknowledged, into the elementary beginnings of little less than a new
science, strikingly testifies the superiority of his intellectual power.

Whilst, however, he advocated John Hunter’s views, and, with a creative
spirit, made them the basis of additional structures which were
emphatically his own, we find him modestly reverting again and again to
John Hunter, as if afraid of not awarding him his just due,—and for
ever linking both the early bud put forth by Hunter’s inquiries and
the opening blossom afforded by his own, with the imperishable efforts
of his distinguished master,—exemplifying the modesty of genius, and
how superior it is, when guided by virtue, to any but the most exalted

Another example of his independence of mind and of his conquest over
difficulty, when the interests of truth appeared to him to render it
necessary, was the manner in which, in defiance of ridicule and all
sorts of opposition, he advocated his own views; with ultimate success,
it is true, but obtained only through a variety of difficulties,
greatly augmented by his naturally shy, if not timid, organization.
Still, amidst all his brilliant endowments, we feel ourselves fondly
reverting to the more peaceful and unobtrusive efforts with which he
daily inculcated the conscientious study of an important profession.

That he had faults, is of course true; but they were not the faults
of the spirit so much as of the clay-bound tenement in which it
resided—not so much those of the individual man as those necessarily
allied to humanity. The powerful influences of education had not been
very happily applied in Abernethy; its legitimate office is, no doubt,
to educe the good, and suppress the evolution of bad qualities. In
Abernethy, we can hardly help thinking that his education was more
calculated to do just the contrary. “To level a boy with the earth,”
because he ventured on “a crib to Greek Testament,” is, to say the
least of it, very questionable discipline for a shy and irritable
organization. To restore to its original form the tree which has been
bent as a sapling, is always difficult or impossible.

But, in virtue of those beneficent laws which “shelter the shorn
lamb,” Abernethy was allowed ultimately, less in consequence than
in spite of his education, to develop one of the most benevolent of
dispositions. To this was joined a powerful conscientiousness, which
pervaded everything he did, and which could hardly be supported but by
sentiments of religious responsibility; and it is certain that his mind
was deeply imbued with the precepts of a vital Christianity, that took
the most practical view of his duty to God and to his neighbour; and,
in the very imperfect sense in which human nature has ever attained
to the full obedience of either, he regarded a humble and practical
observance of the one as the best human exposition of the other. His
favourite apothegm on all serious occasions, and especially in those
parts of his profession where its guidance was most required, was the
divine precept of doing to others as we would wish done to ourselves.

In his reflections he strikingly exemplifies how humble and
single-minded were his modes of thinking. After the manner of Bishop
Butler, but with a simplicity highly characteristic, he identifies that
which is truly religious with that which is truly philosophical; and,
instead of finding difficulties in those barriers which necessarily
lie before finite capacities, when endeavouring to approach the
Infinite, he seems to regard them as things which rather direct and
limit, than obstruct, legitimate inquiry.

In concluding this imperfect sketch of a difficult character, we
have merely endeavoured to state our own impressions. We cannot help
thinking that Abernethy has left a space which yet remains unoccupied;
it would be presumptuous to say that it will long continue so. In his
life he has left us an excellent example to follow, nor has it been
less useful in teaching us that which we should avoid.

Whilst amongst us, as he taught us how to exercise some important
duty, he would occasionally endeavour to impress matters of detail,
by showing, first, how they should not be done. His life instructs us
after the same manner. In all serious matters, we may generally take
him as a guide; in occasional habits, we may most safely recollect
that faults are no less faults—as Mirabeau said of Frederick—because
they have the “shadow” of a great name; and we believe that, were it
possible, no good man would desire to leave a better expiation of any
weakness, than that it should deter others from a similar error. This
is the view we would wish our young friends to take of the matter. We
cannot all reach the genius of Abernethy, but we may be animated by the
same spirit.

If great men are endowed with powers given only to the few, their
success generally turns on the steady observance of the more homely
qualities which are the common privilege of the many—caution,
circumspection, industry, and humility. Again, genius is often
charged with weaknesses by which more ordinary minds are unfettered
or unembarrassed. We may emulate the justice, the independence of
mind, the humanity, the generosity, the modesty, and, above all,
the conscientiousness of Abernethy, in all serious cases; without
withholding from the more ordinary and lighter duties of our profession
a due proportion of these feelings, or necessarily laying aside the
forbearance and courtesy which must ever lend an additional grace to
our various duties.

We may endeavour with all our power to avoid a disgraceful flattery
and compliancy, without replacing them by contrasts which, though not
equally mischievous, we may be assured are equally unnecessary: whilst
we may, in our various stations, emulate his kindness, his constancy
as a husband, father, and friend; and yet not refuse a becoming share
of such endearing qualities to others, from any fear that we shall be
subject to misconstruction.

We may remember that intellect alone is dry, cold, and calculating;
that feeling, unsupported or uncontrolled, is impulsive, paroxysmal,
and misleading; and that the few rare moments of moral excellence which
human nature achieves, are, when these powers combine, in harmony of
purpose and unity of action.

We may be assured that, however much we admire that rapid and searching
perceptivity,—that sound, acute, and comprehensive judgment which
Abernethy brought to bear on the study of the profession,—or the
honourable, independent, generous, and humane manner in which he
administered its more important and serious duties,—the greatest,
and, for good, the most potential influence of all, was the manner in
which he employed his manifold and varied excellences as a teacher in
endeavouring to infuse a truly conscientious spirit into the numbers
who, as pupils, he sent forth to practise in all parts of the world.
This is still an unknown amount of obligation. Those resulting from
his works may be proximately calculated, and such as are necessarily
omitted in a review essentially popular, _may be chronicled hereafter
in a more suitable manner_; but, as a teacher, we cannot as yet
calculate the amount of our obligations to him. They are only to be
estimated by reflection; and by recollecting the _moral influence of
every man_ who honestly practises an important profession.

Finally, whether we think of the interests of the public, the
profession, or those of each, as affecting the other, or of both as
affecting the progress of society; we shall, I think, be disposed to
agree with one of our most distinguished modern writers, that the
“means on which the interests and prospects of society most depend, are
the sustained influence that invariably attends the dignity of private

In a world which presents so much of violated faith and broken ties,
the mind experiences a grateful repose in the contemplation of long and
uninterrupted friendship.

Of all men, perhaps Sir William Blizard had known Abernethy the
longest, and loved him the best; and an intercourse of more than half a
century had only served to cement a friendship entirely reciprocal with
sentiments of increased respect and regard.

Sir William had been one of the first to excite in Abernethy that
love for his profession which led to such brilliant results. He had
witnessed his career with all the pleasure that a teacher regards the
success of an early pupil, and no doubt with that satisfaction which is
inseparable from a prediction fulfilled. He had lived, also, to receive
a public and affectionate tribute of gratitude for his early lessons,
when Abernethy was in the zenith of his power.

Sir William, however, lived nearly a century, and was still alive and
well, when Abernethy’s sun was setting, and when that fire which he had
been the first to kindle for such useful and benevolent purposes was
soon to be extinguished for ever.

When Abernethy retired from the College of Surgeons, Sir William was
requested to draw up the memorial in which his services were to be

These circumstances invest even formal documents with an unusual
interest; and we therefore trust that Sir William’s encomium may not be
thought an inappropriate conclusion to our humble story.

This almost ancient friend and early instructor observed, of Abernethy,
“that his life has been devoted to the improvement of the healing art.
His luminous writings breathe simplicity, humanity, reverence of truth,
and disdain of worldly art; and have placed the art and science of
surgery on the permanent basis of anatomy and physiology; whilst the
contemplation of his character excites emulative ideas of public virtue
in the cultivation of useful knowledge.”

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Professor Smythe

“Philosophy directs us to bear evils with patience and fortitude,
because they are inevitable; but Christianity gives us consolation
under sufferings, by assuring us that they are but the discipline
of a Parent who loveth while he chastiseth, and that they are but
for a moment, when compared with eternity. The Christian’s Hope
has made him whom it has supported rejoice under the greatest
sufferings that mortality could endure; yet Hope is but the
offspring of faith, and therefore it was necessary to make faith
the foundation of the structure of the Christian Religion, and
to assign and affix to it peculiar privileges and rewards.” MR.

Whoever reflects on the influence produced on the mind by research in
Science, will, we think, arrive at a very important conclusion.

It is true that, at the commencement, numerous worldly motives tend to
place most prominently before us the temporal advantages of scientific
Inquiry. There are distinctions of wealth, rank, position, which not
unfrequently await its successful cultivation. Then there are the
multiform applications of science in extending the enjoyments, in
ministering to the wants, and, still better, relieving the calamities
of mankind; but when we have arrived at this, surely the acmé of its
_utilitarian_ allurements, we find there are still higher motives
engendered—that science has a still richer harvest to encourage its
onward cultivation. Nor is it too much to say, that, if cultivated
aright, the fruits may be more surely garnered than any of those
to which we have previously referred. The harvest we mean consists
of those moralizing influences which, however neglected, are never
separable from the study of Nature; which, however ordinary the
impulses with which the inquiry may have commenced, slowly overlay
it with motives and feelings which lead us to investigate Nature for
the sake of truth alone. And here, we think, first dawns upon us the
conclusion to which we have alluded: viz. that the highest attractions
of science are to be found in what we venture to term its “Religion.”

However much the influences first mentioned tend to place the more
lofty suggestions of science in temporary abeyance, there always comes
a time when the sincere inquirer begins to feel a double current of
thought. In the one, the thoughts are open, aspiring—ambitious, it
may be—public, and directed only to the laws and phenomena of Nature;
in the other, they are calm, deep, humble, silent, and _will_ turn to
the Supreme Cause. The former may foster his ambition, animate his
research, sustain his industry. The latter carry him beyond those
influences, and supplies something which they cannot give. In loving
truth for its own sake, he learns by degrees to lean little on the
worldly appreciation of labour—convinced that whatever is true, will
one day find its own way, in the time best fitted for it. We cannot
help thinking that it is the force of this double current of thought
by which that climax has been reached by some of the greatest minds;
which has exemplified the coincidence of the utmost range of human
knowledge with the most profound humility; thus rendering the highest
aspirations of science subservient to the cultivation of a principle;
inseparable, we suppose, from all Religion; but certainly one of the
most distinguishing characteristics of Christianity.

An idea, however, has arisen in some minds, that the pursuit of science
has a tendency to make men sceptical in Religion. This we believe
to be not only a demonstrable, but a dangerous error—demonstrable,
as remarkably opposed to the evidences of fact and observation; and
dangerous, as withdrawing the minds of many from the study of science,
who would be perhaps especially fitted to estimate its advantages and
enjoy its pleasures.

History, who from her ample store of testimony has so often repealed
injustice and defeated error, is no where more conclusive than on the
question before us. The study of Nature not only has no tendency to
induce a state of mind unfavorable to the reception of the truths of
Religion, but just the contrary; for the proofs of a humble and sincere
reliance on the promises of the one, have been infinitely most striking
in those who have proved themselves the most successful cultivators of
the other.

The philosopher, regarding the universe as the dwelling of the Supreme,
sees in the laws of nature, and in the powers through which he is
permitted in a degree to interpret them, only another revelation—a
Divine recognition of his high relations and destiny; and grasps
in one comprehensive idea the Word and the Works, as an integral
communication—one extended privilege to Man. He does not indeed
confound the evidences on which philosophical and religious truths
respectively repose. He knows that they rest on different _kinds_ of
testimony, which he neither strives to identify, nor misapply. He
no more expects to deduce the generalizations of science from the
Scriptures, than he does the commands of the Deity from the facts of
the natural world. Philosophy and Religion, however, are constantly
impressing similar facts. In science, we learn—and no doubt the
deepest learn it best—that “there are more things in heaven and earth
than are dreamt of in our philosophy.” Religion tells us there are many
things “past man’s understanding.” Religion and science teach us alike
that any inquiry into the positive and ultimate nature of anything
which exists, is entirely beyond our faculties; and respectively impress
on us the conviction, that our proper business is to search out the
phenomena and laws of the one, and to obey the Commandments of the other.

Philosophy is daily teaching us how little we know, as compared with
that which is unknown. Religion informs us that, at present, we see
“through a glass darkly.” Yet, at the same time, both concur in
encouraging us to believe that everything that is really required of
us, everything that is good and useful to us both here and hereafter,
are alike open to human capacity. The pursuit of science, no doubt,
establishes requisitions which are essential to the proper study of
it. A mind undisciplined by any rule; a mind taking only a conjectural
view of nature; a mind allowing fancy or imagination to usurp the
place of intellectual power; a condition which ignores the guidance of
patience, circumspection, and industry, and which seeks the explanation
of the impressions made on the senses by ingenious hypotheses made to
fit them; or which sees no order or intelligibility in anything which
it does not at once comprehend; that these and many other states of
mind _may_ tend to confound the understanding, and replace anything
rational or profitable by anything else, is _possible_ enough. But is
it not equally true of Religion? Experience has abundantly shown us the
result of Man trying to fit the mysteries of Religion to the measure
of intelligibility set up by the human intellect. There surely is no
subject on which men have become more lamentably bewildered. This,
however, is merely one of the too common examples of abuse of our
faculties; and that such men may become sceptical, whether pursuing
Science or any subject whatever, is probable. It is, in truth, “Science
falsely so called,” and has no more relation to the legitimate study of
Nature, than the most orderly formula of the mathematician has to the
wildest conjecture.

But that research in science, legitimately conducted, has any tendency
to produce what is usually intended by the term scepticism, is not only
improbable;—it is directly contradicted by the facts of experience.
So numerous are the examples of the contrary, to which we here add
the name of Abernethy, that it is difficult to select, so as not to
leave the evidence unjustifiably bald on the one hand; or to render
it superfluous even to tediousness on the other. That which confers,
however, the greatest interest on this part of the subject, is not so
much the _mass_ of testimony, not so much the _crowd_ of witnesses,
as the peculiar, yet varied, character of the august assemblage. It
is extremely significant to observe, that whilst we find amongst
the most earnest advocates of the paramount importance of Revealed
Truth, the names of the most successful students of the Truths of
Science,—so, on the other hand, no persons have laboured to impress
us with the important uses of the facts in nature with more zeal and
success than distinguished Divines. Amongst the many scientific men
who have exemplified the purifying tendencies of scientific pursuits
in promoting their reverence for Revealed Religion, it will suffice to
mention such names as Boyle, Bacon, Kepler, Newton, Locke. The latter
too reminds us that the medical profession has contributed no small
number of witnesses; of whom, Böerhaave, Linnæus, Sloane, and Haller,
are a few of the more illustrious examples. All the foregoing are men
who have explored one or more of the ample fields of Nature; some of
them, extending their views beyond the planet we inhabit, into the
whole visible universe, have come back, showing us how to understand
the necessity, and estimate the value, of Revealed Truth; converting,
it may be, in many instances, Belief (so called) into a positive Faith;
and a passive assent into an earnest and clear conviction.

But, as we have said, Divines have not been slow in contributing the
weight of their testimony to the value of natural evidence, and the
acceptable assistance afforded by a contemplation of the laws and the
mysteries of Nature. So abundant indeed are these mysteries, that
there is not a path of our progress by day, nor a waking thought by
night, that does not at times present some of them to our reflection.
Mysteries in operation so clear, that our very senses take cognizance
of them; so orderly, that when we are allowed to discover the law which
regulates them, we are at a loss which most to admire, the power, the
number, or the simplicity of its manifestations; and yet which, as to
their intrinsic nature, are so recondite as to be entirely beyond our
researches; leaving us, in fact, no faculty which can deal with them,
but faith alone. Divines have shown the value they attach to all such
facts, by the admirable application they have made of them in aiding
the cultivation of Religion—sometimes by teaching the necessity and
reasonableness of faith in the mysteries of Religion; at others, in
impressing the nature and attributes of the Supreme.

It would be easy to produce a longer roll of such men; but most
readers are acquainted with such names as Cudworth, Butler, Sturm,
Derham, Paley, Crombie, who have, in one or other sense, exemplified
the importance of natural knowledge, and the interest they took in
its cultivation. In every phase of the investigation, we meet with
fresh examples of the union of Religion with Science. Paschal and
St. Pierre are eminent illustrations. Paschal was a Divine, and an
eminent mathematician: mankind is surely under obligations to him for
his “Lettres Provinciales.” These extraordinary compositions must
have operated with uncommon force against the sophistries of the
Jesuits; and, considering the nature of the subject, it could have
been no ordinary work that could have induced Voltaire to say that
he had never read anything more humorous than the earlier letters,
or more sublime than the later. St. Pierre[80], too, should not be
passed without mention. His book is, in some points of view, one of
the most interesting works ever written: occasionally fanciful or
enthusiastic, it is a most unusually rich collection of facts and
observations. How excellently adapted it is to encourage observation
of natural phenomena! How just and philanthropic—how circumspect
and comprehensive his observations in Nature! and how excellent and
free from cant the paramount importance he impresses of Religion as a
principle, and of Christianity as the perfect supply of all that is
necessary to us in time or in eternity. Yet St. Pierre was a soldier;
and it is to our present purpose that he was a scientific man, and an
engineer. Neither should we pass unnoticed the numerous associations of
pastoral care with the observation of nature, so pleasingly exemplified
in White of Selborne, and Gilpin of the New Forest—men whose books we
count now rather by generations than editions, and which suggest to
our imagination the additional gratification which such men must have
derived to their favourite pursuits, in the continued sanction afforded
by Scripture. We would reverently point to the site first chosen as
the abode of purity and innocence; and the numerous illustrations from
nature contained in the Sacred Volume; whether in enforcing general
rules, or a special command—impressing a particular principle, or
illustrating a recondite mystery,—and especially that which is a
_remarkable and necessary combination_ of mystery with faith. For
whilst it is, as well as other mysteries, beyond our comprehension, it
commands so entire a faith in its reality, as to be, in some form or
other, instinctive and universal[81].

Mr. Abernethy, it has been stated in former editions, was, as regards
his religious tenets, a member of the Church of England: and it would
have been gratifying to have included some of those sentiments on
religious and moral matters which we now record; but, although some of
these documents had been open to our inspection before the completion
of the second edition, they were not so entirely at our disposal as
Miss Abernethy has subsequently placed them. Of these documents,
those which relate to religious and moral subjects consist, first,
of a small book on the Mind, which Abernethy published a great many
years ago, anonymously; and certain reflections, found amongst the
very few MSS. which he had preserved. Amongst these papers, there
are two which are in the form of sermons; and, although they are all
somewhat fragmentary, they are in several points of view more or less

As it appears to be an abuse of the proper business of biography
to publish every thing that an eminent man says or does, we shall
endeavour to make such selection as shall fall within its legitimate
objects—viz. as establishing some fact of importance, as illustrating
the tone and character of the man, or as placing some conclusion which
had been drawn more or less from general observation, on the more
secure basis of the sentiments he has himself recorded.


There is “more moral certainty in the greater number of instances of
those things which we believe from the deduction of reason, than of
those we believe from the action of the senses.”

Yet he would warn the students of science “from being proud of their
acquisitions; and against not believing any thing but what they learn
from the deductions of their reason, lest they _become most ignorant of
that of which they are most assured_.”

“Man at this period of the world is still ignorant of the nature of
surrounding bodies; his information must be limited as his perceptions
are limited, and this should produce humility, the proper frame of mind
for Christians.”

After saying that we have no means of forming any idea of the nature
of matter, but from the impressions we receive from it, those of
figure, divisibility, gravity, and disposition to move when impelled,
to continue in motion unless retarded, &c. &c.—in allusion to a
well-known theory, he adds: “But some have doubted whether we could be
sure even of those properties of matter of which we felt most confident
the existence were such as we conceived them to be. Certainly,” he
says, “we know nothing of what matter really is; we only know certain
properties, without being at all acquainted with the substratum or
subject, as a logician would say, which supports these properties.
Yet,” he says, “when we consider the ideas derived from external
objects, we _cannot but admire their correctness and suitability to our
present wants and state of existence_.”

“If we are ignorant of the nature of the most common object of matter,
as we call it, how can we obtain any knowledge of what we call Spirit?”
He thinks that it is only from a knowledge of ourselves that we can
derive any ideas on the subject.

“When we examine our bodies, we see an assemblage of organs formed
of what we call matter, visible to the eye and cognizable to the
touch; but, when we examine our minds, we feel that there is something
sensitive and intelligible which inhabit our bodies.” “We naturally
believe in the existence of a Supreme First Cause. We feel our own
free agency. We distinguish right and wrong. We feel as if we were
responsible for our conduct, and the belief in the existence of a
_future state seems indigenous to the mind of man_.” “We are conscious
of our existence; we remember our sensations; we compare them, judge
of them, and Will and act in consequence of such judgment.” He thinks
if we can form any notion of the actions of a Spirit, it must be
from reflections on such phenomena, and not from any hypothetical
definitions of Matter and Spirit.

Again, after insisting on the limitation of our powers, he says, “From
them we may conceive of God, that He approves what is right, and
condemns what is wrong; and that he may approve of our conduct when we
act right or wrong, according to our own ideas of rectitude or error.
We cannot conceive that God would have given us the power of judging
without deciding on the rectitude or error of our conduct in conformity
to such power or judgment. This is the sense in which I understand the
Scriptures—that God created man in His own image.”


“As the Mind takes cognizance of what is passing in the body, and in
those which surround it and directs its notions and operations in
regard to them, so we may conceive of that Great Spirit, the Soul
of the universe, that He perceives and governs all its parts. That
Creator, Supporter, and Governor of the universe, whom we are taught to
address, not only as such, but by the more endearing appellation of the
Father of our Spirits.”

In his little book on Mind, he thus lays out his plan:

“The attributes of the mind, which seem to be of a permanent nature,
are here considered as ‘properties’ (intending such as perception,
memory, &c.); those which are occasionally exerted and operate with
effort as ‘powers;’ and those which may be perceived only occasionally,
and which vary in degree or kind in different persons, as ‘qualities.’
As Reason and Will are ‘properties’ of the mind, and yet exerted as
‘powers,’ they are treated under both heads.”


“As I may not use the word in a customary sense, I think it right
to explain what I mean by ideas. When I see a beautiful prospect
illuminated by the sun, I have a _perception_ of light and shade.
When, however, I have acquired such a knowledge of light and shade
as to be able to represent on paper a spherical or many-sided body,
I think I have acquired a knowledge of light and shade beyond that
which the _mere_ remembrance of my perception would have produced. I
shall, therefore, express myself as follows: Our knowledge consists
of perceptions and deduction from them, which may be called ideas,
opinions, thoughts. In reasoning, we employ these intellectual
deductions, as we employ the perceptions of the facts themselves.”


He observes: “It does not appear that we have the power of abstracting
the mind from the consideration of any subject, except by engaging it
in some other.”


“Benevolence is necessary, because it enlarges our sphere of happiness
by rendering us participators in the happiness of others—besides
producing, by sympathy, similar feelings in others.”

In a series of propositions on the exercise of mind, he impresses the
mischief of admitting or indulging erroneous trains of thought, as
illustrated by “the fears arising from bad management in childhood,—by
persistence in vice after the gratification has ceased and the
destruction certain; and also in contributing to the production of
insanity.” Or, on the other hand, he considers the _advantage_ of
exercise in correct trains of thought; that the powers evinced by
Newton, and, in certain cases, by Johnson, to have been unattainable,
but as the result of such exercise. He enlarges on the moral effects
of habitual increase of power in diverting the mind at will to other
objects, and so subduing anger, mitigating calamity, &c.

In illustrating the intensity that recurrence of impression is apt to
give to the feelings, he says: “Benevolence indulged, leads to lasting
friendship; whilst the harbouring sensations of even trivial disgust
are too likely to develop animosity,” &c.

In speaking of the difficulty of ascertaining all the _facts_ and
_feelings_ which enter into the formation of any one’s opinions, he
says: “It ought to incline us to think modestly of our own, and pay
deference to those of others,”

The impropriety of “anything like compulsion to make men think alike
by other than _their own temperately induced convictions_ is never
more clear than in regard to religion; for the aim of Christianity is
general benevolence and individual humility—benevolence even to the
forgiveness of error. Has not this been illustrated in the highest
degree by its Supreme Author, when He said, ‘Father, forgive them;
they know not what they do?’ Does not Christianity enjoin the very
reverse of that which we are constantly pursuing, by which we excite
dissension and cultivate an arrogance incompatible with the character
of a Christian.”

He concludes one chapter thus:

If we said to others, who agree in the main points of religion, “We are
brothers, let each think as his own mind dictates,—it is probable that
all would soon think alike, because all would think without passion or

He considers the most exalted of all manifestations of divine mercy,
“the atonement of sin by the sufferings of Christ, and the promulgation
of precepts which, if practised, ensure temporal and eternal
happiness.” And, in another place, he speaks of the gratitude that
man should feel in “that his Creator has thus condescended to be his
Redeemer,” &c.

Of the Scripture precept—”To do justice, to love mercy, and to walk
humbly with thy God”—he observes, “that it contains precepts so clear
as to be intelligible to any capacity—so strikingly just as to gain
our immediate accordance—and so comprehensive as to include every
event which can occur in life,” &c. Yet he says, “it is the property of
truth, however beautiful it may appear at first sight, to seem more
and more so, in proportion as it is minutely examined.” MSS.

In deprecating pride, whether of mind, body, or estate, after
discussing the latter, he remarks on the more seductive influence of
intellectual superiority; he says: “The mind is no more ours than
the body;” that the success of intellect depends on varieties of
opportunity, qualities of mind, &c.; that all are alike given us, and
that any merit which the mind may bring, consists, not in the successes
of intellect, but in the purity of the motive by which they are guided.


“It requires great and constant reflection to prevent a man from
becoming vain, who is placed in high office. He receives such constant
deference and respect to his opinions and wishes from all around him,
such ready obedience, that he might be led to imagine he was a creature
of superior order.”

In some memoranda connected with things which had vexed him, we find:
“If justice, good will, and candour, were common, the world would be
too happy; it would not be what it now is—a state of exertion and
trial; of strenuous efforts, which contribute to the general good;
and, when efforts are unavailing, of trials which demand fortitude,
patience, and submission.” MSS.

In allusion to some preceding reflections, “It being intended to
show that the conduct enjoined by the Scriptures is the same that
philosophy should inculcate, and that the preceding considerations
would not only almost persuade, but oblige every one to be a Christian
in conduct, whatever he might be in creed.”

“To me it seems that the inspired origin of Christianity may be fairly
inferred from its wonderful adaptations to the wants and feelings of
the human mind. The Author of the Christian Religion knew the mind
of man, and all those feelings and considerations which support and
confirm him in well-doing. That feelings, to become vivid, strong, and
habitual, must be often repeated; and therefore that prayer and the
ceremonials of Religion were not only right, but due to that Power by
whose ordinances we live, and move, and have our being. How perfect a
knowledge of the human mind evince those precepts which instruct us,
distrusting our own constancy, to shun temptation and evil society. To
engage ourselves in constant and useful employment, and to suppress
the first movements of the mind, which, if continued, would urge us
with increased force and velocity to error. Human observation teaches
that the feelings of man are the source of their happiness or misery,
and the causes of their conduct. The Christian Religion operates on
our feelings, by teaching us the government of the mind, and showing
that Christianity does not consist merely in evil doing, but in evil

We here conclude the extracts which we think it necessary to submit to
the reader, and we hope that they have not been more than in keeping
with the objects we proposed to observe. In all the reasoning in his
papers, Abernethy, whether we suppose him right or wrong, is remarkably
clear and consistent. If he discourses on matter, or spirit, or any
other principle, he simply regards the phenomena they can be made
to exhibit, regardless of any opinion mankind may have formed as to
their _real_ nature. He regards our ignorance of the intrinsic nature
of matter or spirit merely as an example of our ignorance of that
which is beyond the scope of our present faculties. This, in science,
is _studying_ facts and laws, as contrasted with speculation and
conjecture; in religion, it seems to be attention to the Command and
the study of the Word, as contrasted with that of the intrinsic nature
of Him who gave it; and, in thus suggesting the legitimate path of mind
in regard to both, is at once philosophical and religious.

It would have been easy to have multiplied the analogies of science
and religion, and especially those which, in warning us before hand
of those difficulties which occur in the prosecution of science, tend
to gird us with the requisite firmness and moderation in bearing up
against, or in surmounting them. Few have cultivated science with
success, without encountering more or less of those evils which have
been so commonly opposed to the more devoted advocates of religion. So,
also, some of the most useful discoveries have been the mission of men
of obscure origin. Again, discoveries in science have frequently had
to brave distrust, ridicule, injustice, and all kinds of opposition.
It would, indeed, seem that nothing really good can in this world be
attained without sacrifice; much less truth—that best of all; and he
among us who is not prepared, in his search for the truths of Science,
to add his mite of something that the world most values, might perhaps
as well take Science as he finds it, and avoid a labour which, without
sacrifice, will be almost certainly abortive.

That Abernethy’s idea of religion was eminently practical, is every
where apparent in his reflections; yet, while he seems to have felt
that “faith, without works, is dead,” he unmistakeably evinces his
conviction as to the foundation on which he thinks _good_ works can
alone be secured.

The extracts we have made, and all Abernethy’s writings, appear to bear
witness to a marked sincerity of character. We see that, whether he
lectured at the College of Surgeons, or spoke to his pupils, who paid
him for his instructions—whether he addressed the public who joined
with the profession in establishing his eminent position—whether he
published with his name or without it; or addressed his sentiments to
his family, unheard but in the sacred precincts of home,—we find his
thoughts and his language always the same. He had no dress thoughts,
no company mind-clothing; he was always the same, simple, earnest, and
sincere. In his very earliest papers, in his lectures at College, or
in those of the Hospital, we never entirely lose sight of the golden
thread to which I have before alluded. The bulk of the discourse is
always the question that is really and properly before him; yet he
seldom concludes the argument philosophical, without glancing (and it
is in that just keeping as to be seldom more) at its ethical or its
theological relations.

“It is the duty of Criticism neither to depreciate, nor dignify
by partial representations; but to hold out the light of reason,
whatever it may discover.”


In tracing the progress of science, it is difficult to assign to each
individual his just share of merit. The evidence, always incomplete,
seldom allows us to do more than to mark the more fortunate, to whom,
as it were, the principal parts have been allotted. The exposition of
truth generally implies a previous contest with error. This may, in one
sense, be compared with military achievements. We hear of the skill and
wisdom of the General and his associate Chiefs; but little is known
of individual prowess, on the multiplication of which, after all, the
result depends.

To one who conferred so many obligations on his country and on mankind
as Abernethy, it is difficult to assign only his just share; and yet
it is desirable that nothing be ascribed to him which is doubtful or

Antecedently to Abernethy’s time, and contemporaneous with the date
of Mr. Hunter’s labours, surgery had, in the best hands, and as a
mere practical _art_, arrived at a respectable position; still,
in Abernethy’s early day, barber-surgeons were not yet extinct;
and, as he jocosely phrased it, he himself had “doffed his cap” to
barber-surgeons. There is no doubt that some of them had arrived
at a very useful knowledge. The celebrated Ambrose Paré was a
French barber-surgeon. When Abernethy entered into life, the best
representative of the regular surgery _of that day_ was Mr. Pott, who
was contemporary with the period of Mr. Hunter’s labours. Mr. Pott
was a good surgeon, an eloquent lecturer, a scholar, and a gentleman;
and he gave some surgical lectures at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital. We
have perused two manuscript copies of these lectures, which are in
the library of the Royal Medical and Chirurgical Society, and they
contain many useful and judicious observations. There are ripples
of a more humane and scientific surgery, and many parts that are
suggestive of onward study. Pott had also the good sense to perceive
the measured pretensions of his own time, and to predict advances on
it, as great as that itself was on the surgery of his predecessors:
but we do not perceive anything in Pott’s lectures in the shape of a
science. _Extensive_ generalizations we are not thinking of; we have
them _yet_ to get; but we see nothing, in the true sense of the word,
even axiomatic. There are no steps, no axioms, by which we can reach
the platform of more general propositions. In some of his operations,
the most elementary principles are either not perceived or neglected;
and, although there are general recognitions of the state of the health
influencing the so-called surgical maladies, there is no definite
principle developed. It is a recognition scarcely more than that
implied in the older surgical writers, when, if the surgical part of a
case did not go on well, they recommended the calling in of a physician.

In this state of things, John Hunter began a beautifully simple,
and, in its bearings on surgery, we may add, a new mode of inquiry.
He saw that there was much in all animals that was common, and that
there were analogies in the whole organic kingdom of nature; hence he
sought to develop, by observation of the various processes in various
animals, and their nearest analogies in vegetables also, the _true
relations_ of the phenomena observable in man. It was not that he did
that which had never been attempted before, in the abstract, but that
he undertook it with a new, a concentrated unity of purpose. He did
not employ, as it were, a different instrument to collect the rays
of light from surrounding nature; but he concentrated them into a
focus on a different object—the nature and treatment of disease. His
labours, though not permitted to endure for many years, interrupted by
indisposition, and suddenly stopped by death, were abundantly fruitful;
they enabled him to simplify much of surgery that was officious and
hurtful, and to correct many errors. He first gave a reason for this or
that proceeding, founded on actual observation of natural processes:
thus, in healing of wounds, the natural and healthy were distinguished
from unnatural and unhealthy processes, and so forth. But as Mr.
Hunter’s enlarged views taught him the the value of the _relations_
observable throughout the whole animal creation, he contemplated
_parts_ of the body only as a step to the more successful observation
of the _whole_. As before stated, he observed the phenomena exhibited
by the various organs, both separately and in connection; traced
them with elaborate circumspection, and concluded by justifying what
Abernethy said, when he observed: “Hunter proved that the whole body
sympathized with all its parts.”

Now, many of the facts which Mr. Hunter remarked in the relations
established between different parts of the body, were, in the
strictest sense, axiomatic—that is, they were exemplifications of
laws to which they were the necessary steps. Take one for example:
that the part sympathetically affected by an impression primarily
made on another part, appeared to be frequently _more disturbed_
than the part with which it had appeared to sympathize. This we now
know to be no exception, but rather the law; because the exceptions
(as we contend[82]) are explicable; but that was not then perceived.
Abernethy, however, made use of this so far as to impress the fact,
that organs might be seriously disordered without there being
_apparently_ any symptoms referable to them.

Now, Abernethy might have continued to labour as Hunter did in
collecting facts as the materials for axioms, or as elements for
future and more extensive generalization; or he might have at once
taken Mr. Hunter’s views, so far as he had gone, and, working on them
with his remarkable aptitude for perceiving the more salient and
practicable relations of facts, have applied them at once to practical
purposes; gleaning more facts as his extremely acute observation might
have enabled him on the way. He pursued, perhaps, neither course
exclusively; but the latter appeared to be the one he chiefly adopted;
and, from the more immediate fruition it affords, no doubt it was best
adapted to the existing exigencies of a practical profession.

John Hunter was a man of indefatigable industry, and exceedingly
_circumspect_ in his observance of facts. Abernethy was fagging too,
but more impulsive and not so dogged; mere facts were mere bores to
him; he panted for _practical_ relations, and was most wonderfully
quick in perceiving them. His vision was as penetrative as Hunter’s
had been circumspect and cautious. Hunter would have sifted all the
useful things out of any heap, however heterogeneous; Abernethy would
have looked through it, at once found the one jewel that it concealed,
and left the rest for the next comer. They were both most perfectly
honest and truthful, both careless of money, both enthusiastic in
science—that is, both ardent in the pursuit of truth, with that kind
of feeling which does not stop to examine the utilitarian relations
of these pursuits; but which, carried on by a continually increasing
impulse, takes the good for granted, and is impelled by the love of
truth for its own sake.

But, interesting as it is to contemplate those requisitions which, as
indispensable, are common to the successful investigators of science,
it is yet more so to observe the _distinctive_ characters of John
Hunter and John Abernethy. The former, with many ideas to tell, and
most of them new, had a difficulty in expressing himself. With more
need than any man before him for additional facilities in this way,
he had a restricted vocabulary. Again, in making use of it, his style
was seldom easy, often obscure; so that things which, when thoroughly
understood, had no feature more striking than their simplicity, were
often made to appear difficult, and by many readers, no doubt, had
often been left unexamined.

Abernethy, on the contrary, had a happy facility of expressing himself,
and a power, rarely equalled, of singling out the difficult parts
of a subject, and simplifying them down to the level of ordinary
capacities. Hunter, though not without imagination, or humour even,
had these qualities held in abeyance by the unceasing concentration
of his intellectual faculty. As Abernethy used to say, “John Hunter
was always thinking.” Abernethy, on the contrary, had an active
imagination; it always accompanied his intellect, like a young, joyous
attendant, constantly lighting up the more sombre propositions of her
grave companion with varieties of illustration. The most difficult
proposition, directly Abernethy began to fashion it, had all its
rough points taken off, and its essential features brought out clear
and orderly to the plainest intellect. John Hunter, in laying down a
series of facts having the most important influence in the formation
of a medical science (take place when it may), was not able to keep
people awake. Abernethy’s treatment of the most dry and unimportant,
kept his audience unceasingly interested. The obscurity of language
in Hunter was happily replaced, not only by an unusual ease, but by a
_curiosa felicitas_, in Abernethy. In sustained composition, Hunter was
generally difficult, often obscure; Abernethy, if not faultless, always
easy and unaffected. If his style failed sometimes in earnestness and
vigour, it was always sincere; and whilst, though not deficient in
eloquence, it asserted no special claim to that excellence, it was
always pleasing and perspicuous.

Nothing could be further from the earnest and thinking John Hunter than
anything dramatic. Abernethy had that happy variety of countenance and
manner that can be conveyed by no other term. Hunter, without being
slow, was cautious, circumspect: Abernethy, without being hasty, was
rapid, penetrative, and impulsive. Never were two minds so admirably
fitted for the heavy-armed pioneering in science, and the comparatively
light-trooped intellect which was calculated to render the first
clearing easily convertible to those practical necessities with which
the science had to deal. Accordingly we find that Abernethy very soon
extended Mr. Hunter’s views, and applied them so powerfully, as at
least to create the dawnings of a science. He showed that all processes
in the economy—and of course, therefore, those of disease—are
essentially nervous in their origin: that is to say, the nerves being
the _instruments_ through which our relations are established with
surrounding nature (however much we may, in common language, speak of
this or that feeling, this or that _organ_, or this or that part of the
body), all impressions must still be made primarily on the sensitive or
nervous system of that part; and this, of course, whether they imply
_consciousness_, or be altogether independent of it; that disturbed
nervous action was, as the case might be, either the forerunner—or the
next link in the chain of causation (i. e. the proximate cause)—of
the disease; and that therefore the relief of diseased or disordered
actions, however attempted, consisted ultimately and essentially in the
restoration of healthy nervous power, or adaptation.

This, then, is the first proposition. The next thing, and which
necessarily follows, is, that in the prevention or cure of disease, the
first object is the tranquillizing of nervous disorder.

Now, here there are many things to be regarded; for man is a moral
as well as a physical being; and the circumstances by which he
is surrounded, even the air he breathes, the moral and physical
impressions to which he is subjected, are very often not under his own
control, much less that of his medical attendant. On the other hand,
the food is, in civilized communities, very much under the influence
of his volition; and there are many circumstances which, instead of
impeding those adaptations which disorder requires, renders them
particularly easy—it frequently happening that those things which
are really best, are most easily procured. This is important; because
the next proposition is, _that the nervous system is very easily and
constantly disturbed by disorder of one or other, or of the whole
of the digestive organs_, and that therefore the tranquillizing of
disturbance in them is of the highest consequence in the treatment of
disease: _few_ propositions in _any_ science are more susceptible of
proof than the foregoing. But if this be so, we must now recollect
the full force of what we have observed with regard to relation; that
is, we must not restrict our notion of it to the general loose assent
that there is a relation in all parts of the body, and rest on the
simple admission, for example, that animals are formed in adaptation
to their habits; but we must sustain the Cuvier-like impression of the
fact, the Owen-like application of it to the phenomena; recollect
that _preconceived_ ideas of magnitude and minuteness can do nothing
but obscure or mislead; and that the relations established in the
body are constant and universal, however they may at first—as in the
case we have quoted—excite the surprise or the derision of the less
informed and less reflecting. We must take their immensely potential
power as existing _as certainly in the most trifling headache, as
in the most malignant fever_—in the smallest scratch, _as in the
most complicated compound fracture_. We have plenty of facts now to
_prove_ this; but the first plain, clear enunciation of it all, the
successful demonstration of it at the bedside, and the consequent
diminution of an enormous amount of human suffering, is the great
debt we owe to Abernethy. Mankind in general admitted that Diet
was of consequence. Nobody doubted its force as an _accessory_ in
treatment. Lactantius said: “Sis prudens ad victum sine quo cetera
remedia frustra adhibentur.” But no one had recognized the treatment
of the Digestive Organs as the essential part of the treatment of
_surgical_ diseases, nor founded it on the same comprehensive view
of its relations as addressed to organs which executed the nutritive
functions of the body on the one hand, and were the _most potential
disturbers or tranquillizers of the nervous system on the other_,
and thus for ever linked them in their practical relations with the
fact, that the essential element of disease, the _fons et origo_, is
disturbed nervous power. But, as all diseases are merely the result of
two conditions—namely, the injurious influence acting, and the body
acted on—it matters not whether the injurious influence be sudden,
violent, slow, moderate, chemical, mechanical, or what not; so the
foregoing positions affect the whole practice of medicine, and must not
be held as affecting any one part of it, but as influencing equally
both medicine and surgery.

We do trust that these few propositions will induce some to think; for,
as Abernethy used to say, lectures will never make surgeons: and we
feel equally confident that no books, no individual efforts, however
costly or sincere, will really benefit or inform any portion of the
public or the profession, except such of them as may be induced to
_think_ for themselves. They have only to recollect that, in carrying
out such principles, they must not measure their influence by their
previously conceived notions; they must encourage labour when they see
the profession willing, and not thwart them by showing that it will be
labour in vain. There will soon be science, if it is encouraged:

“Sint Mæcenates, non deerunt Flacci.”

If they are disposed to think investigation too minute to be practical,
or precision too unpleasant to be necessary, let them remember the
story of Professor Owen’s beautiful application of minute relation, and
that the distinction between a huge common quadruped and an unknown
wingless bird could alone be discovered by particulars far more minute
than they will be called on once in a hundred times to observe or
to follow. The obligation we have already noticed has in some sense
revolutionized the practice of medicine and surgery, and is no doubt
the capital debt we owe to Abernethy; but there are many others. His
application and adjustment of the operation of the trephine was a
beautiful and discriminating achievement, and would alone have been
sufficient to have raised an ordinary reputation.

His first extension of John Hunter’s operation for aneurism, shows
how ready he was—when he could do so with advantage—to enlarge the
application of that branch of our duties which he least valued—namely,
operative surgery.

His proposal to add to the treatment of the diseases of joints
the apparatus of splints, for ensuring absolute quiescence of the
affected surfaces, has saved a most incalculable number of limbs from
amputation. It here becomes necessary to repeat a remark we have made
in a former work. Sir B. Brodie recommends this plan only in the
third edition, I think, of his discriminative work on the joints, not
appearing to have been aware that Abernethy taught it for nearly thirty
years previously, about ten years of which we ourselves had repeatedly
tested its great value, and taught it, but contemporaneously from
Abernethy, in our own lectures. Indeed, so important an element is it
in the treatment of diseases of the joints, that we have never seen it
fail, when fairly applied and accompanied by a reasonable attention to
the general health, except in the following cases: First, when the
patient has been nearly worn out by disease, before being subjected to
treatment; and, secondly, where the complaint has been proved to be
accompanied by internal organic disease.

We have always thought that one of the most valuable of our obligations
to Abernethy was his lesson on fracture of the neck of the thigh bone
within the capsule of the joint. For thirty years, Sir Astley Cooper
taught, and boasted that he had taught, that this fracture could not
unite by bone; Sir Astley reasoning on the anatomy of the part _only_,
and conceiving that the neck, in its somewhat isolated position,
would be imperfectly nourished; and, seeing that, in point of fact,
this fracture _did generally_ unite by ligament only, unfortunately
adopted the foregoing idea as the _cause_ of the fact, and concluded
that bony union was impracticable. Experiments on animals—at all
times extremely fallacious, in this case singularly imperfect in the
analogy they afforded—appeared to confirm his views. Despairing of
effecting a proper union, he adopted a treatment which rendered it
impossible. Abernethy’s beautiful reasoning on the subject led him to
an opposite conclusion. It embraced certain views of Hunter’s, and some
common phenomena in other accidents where the union by ligament is
_coincident_ with _motion_ of the part. He therefore treated all cases
with a view to secure bony union; and he and many of his pupils had no
doubt but that they had seen examples of its success. Still, people
got well and were lost sight of, and therefore it was said that the
fracture was not _wholly_ within the capsule of the joint. At length
a specimen was procured from the examination of a dead body, and the
question set at rest, we believe, in the minds of every body, that
this fracture, though it require especial care to keep parts steady
and in apposition, will unite just like other fractures in the way
taught (and since proved) by Abernethy. Let those who can calculate the
number of surgeons who have been educated by these two gentlemen, and
who, for the first few years, would have almost certainly followed the
practice of their instructors, compute the number of those of the lame
who, under Providence, have walked in consequence of the clear-sighted
reasoning of Abernethy.

How the French surgeons may have been influenced by Abernethy on
this subject, I do not know. When I was first in Paris, in 1824, they
were divided; but I recollect Baron Larrey showing me a case which
he regarded as a clear example of this fracture in course of firm
consolidation, and he was well aware of the opinion of Abernethy.

The bearing which Abernethy’s acuteness of observation of the influence
of the state of the digestive organs on so-called specific poisons in
producing or maintaining diseases resembling them, opposed as it was to
the most powerful conventionalism, is a proof of his clear judgment;
and, if we mistake not, will one day prove to have been the first
ripple of a most important law in the animal economy, which will shed
a light as new on specific affections as his other principles have on
diseases in general.

His treatment of that severe malady, “lumbar abscess,” is, in our view,
a most acceptable addition to humane and successful surgery; and as
regards one of its distinctive characters, he has, as we have shown,
received the encomiums of the most distinguished of his contemporaries,
including Sir Astley Cooper.

The manner in which he applied that law which prevails in voluntary
muscles to the replacement of dislocations—namely, that muscles
under the influence of the will cannot ordinarily act long and
unremittingly—was an amendment as humane as scientific; and, whilst
it has removed from surgery a farrier-like roughness in the treatment
of dislocations, as repulsive as unnecessary, it has adjusted the
application of more sustained force, when it becomes necessary, on
principles at once humane, safe, and effectual. In short, whatever
part of surgery we consider, we should have something to say of
Abernethy—either something new in itself, or improved in application.
We find him equally patient and discriminative, wherever there is
danger; thus there is the same force and originality on the occasional
consequences on the simple operation of bleeding in the arm, and the
more serious proceeding of perforating the cranium. He is every where
acute, penetrating, discriminative, humane, and practical; so that it
is difficult which most to admire, his enlarged views in relation to
important general principles, or the pervading science and humanity
with which he invests their minutest details.

Hunter’s method of investigation was highly inductive; and, whenever he
adhered to it, the structure he has left is stable, and fit for further
superadditions. Whenever he proceeded on any preconceived notions,
or on an induction manifestly imperfect, his conclusions have, as we
think, been proved unsound. His definition of disease, as distinct
from accidental injury, is one instance which we formerly noticed in
our own works; and some of his conclusions in regard to poisons—as
mercury, for example—will not hold; but all that Abernethy made use
of, either in developing his own views or maturing their practical
applications, were sound and most careful deductions from obvious and
incontrovertible facts. Abernethy took equal care to deduce nothing
from them, or from anything of his own observations, but the most
strictly logical inferences—conclusions which were, in truth, little
more than the expression of the facts, and therefore irrefragable. He
showed that, however dissimilar in kind, nervous disturbance was the
essential element of disease; and that the removal of that disturbance
was the essential element of cure. That no mode should be neglected,
therefore, which was capable of exerting an influence on the nervous
system; but that, whether he looked at the subject as mere matter of
fact, or as assisted by the phenomena of health or disease generally,
or merely to that which was _most within our power_, no more potential
disturbers of the nervous system were to be found, than disordered
conditions of the digestive organs; and that the tranquillizing of
these must always be a leading object in our endeavours to achieve the
still greater one of tranquillizing nervous disorder.

The absurd idea that he looked chiefly to the stomach—that he thought
of nothing but blue pills or alterative doses of mercury—need scarcely
detain us. His works show, and his lectures still more, that there
was no organ in the body which had not been the object of his special
attention; in almost all cases, in advance of his time; and not
exceeded in practical value by any thing now done. We know of nothing
more valuable or clear _now_ than his paper on the skin; nothing so
advanced or important as his observations on the lungs and skin, and
the relations of these important organs; and it is unnecessary to
repeat what has been already said about the digestive organs. His
medical treatment was always very simple, and, if its more salient
object was to correct disorders of the liver, it was because he knew
that the important relations of that organ not only rendered it very
frequently the cause of many disorders, but that there could be nothing
materially wrong in the animal economy, by which it must not be more
or less affected. He carried the same clearness and definiteness of
purpose into his prescriptions, as that which characterized all his
investigations; and, indisposed to employ any means except on some
principle, used but few remedies; although he by no means wished to
deter others from having recourse to a more extended pharmacopæia. We
regret, indeed, the impossibility of doing full justice to Abernethy
in any thing less than a running commentary on the publication of his
works; but we have said enough, we trust, to show how largely the
profession and mankind are indebted to him.

Now, in these days of testimonials, what memorials have we of
Abernethy? It is true there is no monument at Westminster Abbey, and
only a bust at St. Bartholomew’s. His portrait, to be sure, given by
his pupils, hangs at St. Bartholomew’s, exalted where it can hardly be
distinctly seen, to be replaced by those of Mr. Vincent[83], and Mr.
Lawrence in his Professor’s gown! But he has still a

“Monumentum ære perennius,”

in the claim he has established to the rarely so truly earned honour of
“nihil quod non tetigit, et nihil quod tetigit, quod non ornavit;” in
the grateful hearts of many a pupil who had no other obligation to him
than his beautiful lessons; and in an improved medical Surgery, which,
though it may have in _London_ rather retrograded than otherwise since
his time, is felt more or less in its moral as well as its medical
bearings, and in a diminution of suffering and an improved practice
throughout the civilized world.

But, if Abernethy’s views are so true or so excellent as we allege that
they are, they must have _some_ relation to anything that is good in
every kind of medical or surgical treatment; and this equally, whatever
the system (so called) whence it may arise, however much of truth or
error it may contain, or however perplexingly these qualities may be
blended together. These are points on which we have yet something to
say; and as we are anxious that the public and the profession should
favour us with their attention to the very few remarks we have the
space to offer, we must have a new chapter.

[Footnote 82: See “Medicine and Surgery One Inductive Science.” 1838.]

[Footnote 83: A contemporary of the Hospital, of whom, as a practical
surgeon, Mr. Abernethy expressed a very high opinion. Until the matter
was explained, Mr. Vincent’s son was afraid that something “sneerlike”
was intended in this passage; and we were glad of an opportunity of
correcting that impression. Nothing could be farther from the intention
than anything of the kind in regard to either. But it seemed to us an
infelicitous result of the Governors probably having no better rule
for the disposition of their portraits than that which some of us are
obliged to observe in the shelves for our books—we mean the rule which
has twelve inches to the foot.]

“Quæ res neque consilium neque modum habet ullum
Eam consilio regere non potes.”

TER. Eun. Act i, Sc. i.

“Master, the thing which hath not in itself
Or measure or advice—advice can’t rule.”


A writer[84], of no ordinary judgment and discrimination, has observed,
that “it often happens in human affairs that the evil and the remedy
grow up at the same time: the remedy unnoticed, and at a distance
scarcely visible perhaps above the earth; whilst the evil may shoot
rapidly into strength, and alone catch the eye of the observer by the
immensity of its shadow; and yet,” he adds, “a future age may be able
to mark how the one declined and the other advanced, and how returning
spring seemed no longer to renew the honours of the one, while it
summoned into maturity and progress the perfection of the other.”

We know not how it may appear to the reader, but we cannot help
thinking that, in the foregoing sentence, there is a far-seeing
perception of a very leading character in human affairs. There is no
evil but which is charged with a certain degree of good. At first,
it is indeed “scarcely visible”—nay, it escapes alike the most
penetrative perception and faithful confidence, in the surpassing
working-to-good of all things around us; but so soon as the evil begins
to tell—so soon as the full flood of mischief becomes obtrusive or
remarkable,—the small ripple of some corrective principle rises into

It would be easy to illustrate the foregoing proposition from general
history, from the progress of nations, or even from the contracted
area of individual experience. But we will confine ourselves to an
illustration more directly in relation to our immediate object—namely,
the present condition and prospects of medical science.

There are, no doubt, many persons who view the present state of
Medical Science as little better than the triumphant domination of a
conjectural art, which has long obscured, and is still very imperfectly
representing, a beautiful science; and that the perception of the
true relations which it bears to such science has been veiled by the
impression that it involved some mystery from which the general public,
who were most interested in its development, were necessarily excluded.

There have been at all times individuals, perhaps, sufficiently
astute to see the real truth of the matter; but still they were
rare exceptions, and did not prevent Mystery from conferring, on
a very considerable section of people, the social advantage of a
gainful profession; that property being enhanced, of course, in that
it ministered to an ignorant public. But, even in an early stage,
correctives to an equivocally-earned advantage began to appear; for a
thing which had no character but its indefiniteness, and its apparent
facility of acquisition, obtained many followers: the supply, such
as it was, was thus so close in relation to the demand, that what in
theory seemed necessarily very gainful, in practice, on the whole,
proved anything but a lucrative profession. As contrasted with any
other, or a variety of commercial pursuits, medical men were neither so
affluent, nor always so secure of their position. Retiring competency
in well-conducted callings has, in a rich country, been rather the
rule. We fear, in the medical profession it is the exception; which,
we are apprehensive (in its bereaved dependents), contributes more
applicants for eleemosynary relief than any other.

This surely is not a state of things which can be well made worse.
Public ignorance, the _real mischief_, has, in the meantime, been
left uninformed; and any attempt to enlighten it has too often been
branded with some kind or other of corrupt motive. Public positions
have been conferred without competition—the surest test of fitness
or excellence; and the public have been further doubly barred out,
in that the chance of eliciting men of spirit and enthusiasm has
been diminished, by the first positions having been often rendered
contingent on the payment of money in the right quarter.

But all this time corrections were slowly springing up. Hundreds were
beginning, under the light of a more liberal diffusion of general
knowledge, to feel that the so-called Science of medicine and surgery
was very different from science usually so termed; and, whilst other
sciences were affording that which was definite and positive, the
juxtaposition only seemed to bring out in higher relief the prevailing
character of conjecture and uncertainty in medicine.

People began to see that, in mere human occupation, mystery is but
mystery, to whatever it is applied; and that one man can see in the
dark about as well as another; that, where all is obscure, any one
may scramble with a chance of success. Accordingly, we observe that
a state of things has gradually been rising up, which, if it do not
justify the expression of _quot medici tot empirici_, at least leads
us to deplore that, of all callings in life, no one had ever such a
legion of parasites as are represented by the hydra-headed quackeries
which infest the medical profession. Naturally enough, too, Quackery
attacked chiefly those disorders in regard to which Mystery avowed its
incapacity, or declared to be incurable; and thus, while the regular
profession made their _own limited_ knowledge the measures of the
_powers of nature_, the quacks unconsciously proceeded, _de facto_,
more philosophically, when they neither avowed nor acknowledged any
other limits than those of observation and experience.

Amongst, no doubt, innumerable failures, and, as we know, a
multiplicity of fictions, they would now and then, in acting violently
on the various organs, blunder on the last link in the chain—the
immediate cause of the disorder; and perhaps effect the removal of a
so-called incurable malady. Thus, whilst the regular profession were
making their own knowledge the _measure_ of remedial possibility, and
were reposing contentedly on the rule, they were every now and then
undermined, or tripped up, by unexplained exceptions.

It is difficult to conceive any state of things, when once observed,
more calculated to drive men to the obvious remedy that a definite
science would alone afford; nor should it be forgotten that multiform
quackeries, with mesmerism to boot, are coincident with a system which
allows _not one single appointment_, which the public are requested to
regard as implying authority, to be open to scientific competition. Of
late, many persons have begun to examine for themselves questions which
they had been wont to leave entirely to their medical adviser.

The sanitary movement has shown that more people die every year from
avoidable causes than would satisfy the yawning gulf of a severe
epidemic, or the most destructive battle. In a crowded community, many
events are daily impressing on the heads of families, besides the
expedience of avoiding unnecessary expenses, that long illnesses are
long evils; that their dearest connections are sometimes prematurely
broken; and that parts are not unfrequently found diseased which are
not suspected to be so during life. The thought will sometimes occur
whether this may have been always consequent on the _difficulty_ of
the subject, or whether it may not have been sometimes the result of
_too hasty or too restricted_ an inquiry; that not only (as the Spanish
tutor told his royal pupil of kings) do patients die “sometimes,” but
very frequently.

These and other circumstances have induced many of the public to
inquire into the reason of their faith in us; and to ask how
it happens that, whilst all other sciences are popularized and
progressing, there should be any thing so recondite in the laws
governing our own bodies as to be accessible only to comparatively few;
especially as they have begun to perceive that their interests, in
knowing such laws, is of the greatest possible importance.

Amongst various attempts to better this condition of things, the
imagination of men has been very active. Too proud to obey the
guidance, or too impatient to await the fruition, of those cautious
rules which the intellect has imposed on the one hand, and which have
been so signally rewarded (whenever observed) on the other, imagination
has set forth on airy wing, and brought home curiosities which she
called science, and observations which, because they contained _some_
of that truth of which even fancies are seldom entirely deprived,
blinded her to the perception of a much larger portion of error.

Two of these curiosities have made considerable noise, have been not a
little damaging to the pecuniary interests of the medical profession,
and have been proportionately species of El Dorados to the followers of
them. We allude to the so-called Homœopathy and Hydropathy.

Homœopathy proceeds on an axiom that diseases are cured by remedies
which excite an action similar to that of the disease itself; “_Similia
similibus curantur_.”

Our objection to this dogma is twofold, and, in the few hints we are
giving, we wish them not to be confounded.

1st. It is _not_ proven.

2nd. It is _not_ true.

Take the so-called fever. The immediate and most frequent causes of
fever are bad air, unwholesome food, mental inquietude, derangement of
the digestive organs, severe injuries. Now it is notorious that very
important agents in the cure of all fevers are good air, carefully
exact diet or temporary abstinence, and correction of disordered
functions, with utmost repose of mind and body, and so forth.

So of small-pox, one of the most instructive of all diseases. All the
things favourable to small-pox are entirely opposite to those which
conduct the patient safely through this alarming disease; and so
clearly is this the case, that, if known beforehand, its virulence can
be indefinitely moderated, so as to become a comparatively innoxious

We might go on multiplying these illustrations to almost any extent.
What, then, is the meaning of the _similia similibus curantur_? This
we will endeavour, so far as there is any truth in it, to explain. The
truth is, that Nature has but one mode, principle, or law, in dealing
with injurious influences on the body. Before we offer the few hints
we propose to do on these subjects (and we can here do no more), we
entirely repudiate that sort of abusive tone which is too generally
adopted. That never can do anybody any good. We believe both systems
to be dangerous fallacies; but, like all other things, not allowed
to be entirely uncharged with good. We shall state, as popularly as
possible, in what respect we deem them to be dangerous fallacies, and
in what we deem them to be capable of effecting some good; because it
is our object to show, in respect to both, that the good they do is
because they accidentally, as it were, chip off a small corner of the
principles of Abernethy.

Homœopathy is one of those hypotheses which show the power that a
minute portion of truth has to give currency to a large quantity of
error; and how much more powerful in the uninformed are appeals to
the imagination than to the intellect. The times are favourable to
homœopathy. To some persons, who had accustomed themselves to associate
medical attendance with short visits, long bills,—a gentleman in
black, all smiles,—and a numerous array of red bottles, homœopathy
must have addressed itself very acceptably. It could not but be welcome
to hear that all the above not very pleasing impressions could be at
once dismissed by simply swallowing the decillionth part of a grain
of some efficacious drug. Then there was the prepossession so common
in favour of mystery. How wonderful! So small a quantity! What a
powerful medicine it must be! It was as good as the fortune-telling of
the gipsies. There! take that, and then you will see what will happen
next! Then, to get released from red bottles tied over with blue or red
paper, which, if they were not infinitesimal in dose, had appeared
infinite in number, to say nothing of the wholesome repulsion of the

Besides, after the bottles, came the bill, having no doubt the
abominable character of all bills, which, by some law analogous to
gravitation, appear to enlarge in a terrifically accelerating ratio,
in proportion to their longevity; so that they fall at last with an
unexpected and a very unwelcome gravity. Then homœopathy did not
restrict itself to infinitesimal doses of medicine, but recommended
people to live plainly, to relinquish strong drinks, and, in short, to
adopt what at least seemed an approximation to a simple mode of living.
To be serious—what, then, are the objections to homœpathy?

Is there no truth, then, in the dogma, “_Similia similibus curantur_?”
We will explain. The _laws_ governing the human body have an
established mode of dealing with all injurious influences, which is
identical in principle, but infinitely varied and obscured in its
_manifestations_, in consequence of multifarious _interferences_; in
that respect, just like the laws of light or of gravitation. As we
have no opportunity of going into the subject at length, we will give
a hint or two which will enable the observing, with a moderate degree
of painstaking, to see the fallacy. You can _demonstrate_ no fallacy
in a mathematical process even, without some work; neither can you
do so in any science; so let that absence of complete demonstration
be no bar to the _investigation_ of the hints we give. All medicines
are more or less poisons; that is, they have no nutritive properties,
or these are so overbalanced by those which are injurious, that the
economy immediately institutes endeavours for their expulsion, or for
the relief of the disturbance they excite. All organs have a special
function of their own, but all can on occasions execute those of some
other organ. So, in carrying out injurious influences, organs have
peculiar relations to different forms of matter; that is, _ordinarily_.
Thus, the stomach is impatient of ipecacuanha, and substances which
we call emetics; the liver, of mercury, alcohol, fat, and saccharine
matters; and so forth. In the same way we might excite examples of
other organs which ordinarily deal with particular natural substances.
But then, by the compensating power they have, they _can_ deal with
any substance on special occasions.

Now the natural mode in which all organs deal with injurious
substances, or substances which tend to disturb them, is by pouring
forth their respective secretions; but if, when stimulated, they
have not the power to do that, then they evince, as the case may be,
disorder or disease. Thus, for example: If we desire to influence the
secretion from the liver, mercury is one of _the many things_ which
will do it. But if mercury cease to do this, it will produce disease;
and, if carried to a certain extent, of no organ _more certainly_ than
the liver. Thus, again, alcohol, in certain forms, is a very useful
medicine for the liver; yet nothing, in continuance, more notoriously
produces disease of that organ. So that it happens that all things,
which in one form disorder an organ, _may_, in another form, in greater
or more continued doses, tend to correct that disorder, by inducing
there a greater, and thus exciting stimulation of its secretions.

This is the old dogma, long before homœopathy was heard of, of one
poison driving out another. This is the way in which fat bacon, at
one period, or in one case, may be a temporary or a good stimulant of
a liver which it equally disorders in another; for as the liver is a
decarbonizing agent, as well as the lungs, so articles rich in carbon
are all stimulants of that organ; useful, _exceptionally_; invariably
disordering, if _habitual_ or _excessive_.

But if this be so, what becomes of the “_curantur_?” To that, we say
it is far from proven. Medicine hardly ever—perhaps never, _strictly
speaking_—cures; but it often materially assists in putting people
in a _curable condition_, proper for the agencies of more natural
influences. True. Well, then, may not homœopathy be good here? We
doubt it; and for this reason: Medicine, to do good, should _act_ on
the organ to which it is directed; it is itself essentially a poison,
and does well to relieve organs by which _it is expelled_; but if you
give medicine in very small doses, or so as to institute an artificial
condition of _those sentinels_, the nerves, you may _accumulate a
fearful amount of injurious influence in the system before you are
at all aware of it_. And it is the more necessary to be aware of
this in respect to homœopathy; because many of the medicines which
homœopathists employ are active poisons; as belladonna, aconite,
and so on. We have seen disturbed states of nerves, bordering on
paralysis, which were completely unintelligible, until we found that
the patient had been taking small doses of narcotic poisons. We have no
desire whatever to forestall the cool decisions of experience; but we
earnestly request the attention of the homœopathist to the foregoing
remarks; and, if he thinks there is anything in them, to peruse
the arguments on which we found the law of which we have formerly

We must in candour admit that, as far as the inquiry into all the facts
of the case go, as laid down by Hahnemann, we think the profession may
take a hint with advantage. We have long pleaded for more accuracy
in this respect; but we fear, as yet, pleaded in vain. Homœopathic
influences may be perhaps more successful. Practically, the good that
results from homœopathy, as it appears to us, may be thus stated: that
if people will leave off drinking alcohol, live plainly, and take very
little medicine, they will find that many disorders will be relieved by
this treatment alone.

For the rest, we fear that the so-called small doses are either inert,
or, if persisted in so as to produce effect, that they incur the risk
of accumulating in the system influences injurious to the economy;
which the histories of mercury, arsenic, and other poisons, show to be
nothing uncommon: and, further, that this tends to keep out of sight
the real uses and the _measured influences_ of medicine, which, in the
ordinary practice, their usual effects serve, as the case may be, to
suggest or demonstrate.

Practically, therefore, the effects of homœopathy resolve themselves,
so far as they are good, into a more or less careful diet, and small
doses of medicine; which, as we have said, is a chipping off of the
views of Abernethy.

We regret we have no space to consider the relation of homœopathy to
serious and acute diseases. We can therefore only say that the facts
which have come before us have left no doubts on our minds of its being
alike dangerous and inapplicable.

One morning, a nobleman asked his surgeon (who was representing to
him the uselessness of consulting a medical man without obeying his
injunctions) what he thought would be the effect of his going into a
hydropathic establishment? “That you would get perfectly well,” was the
reply; “for there your lordship would get plain diet and good air, and,
as I am informed, good hours; in short, the very things I recommend to
you, but which you will not adopt with any regularity.”

Hydropathy sets out, indeed, with water as its staple, and the skin as
the organ to which it chiefly addresses itself; but we imagine that the
hydropathic physician, if he sees nothing in philosophical medicine,
discovers sufficient in human nature, to prevent him from trading on so
slender a capital. There was, no doubt, in the imperfection of medical
science, a fine opening left for a scheme which proposed to rest its
merits chiefly on an organ so much neglected.

There has never been anything bordering on a proper attention to the
skin, until recently; and even now, any care commensurate with the
importance of the organ, is the exception rather than the rule. Thirty
years ago, Abernethy, when asked by a gentleman as to the probable
success of a bathing establishment, said that the profession would not
be persuaded to attend to the subject; and that, in respect to the
capital which the gentleman proposed to invest in it, he had better
keep the money in his pocket. This was said in relation to the general
importance of attention to the skin, and also in connection with
making it the portal for the introduction of medical agents generally.
Abernethy was, in fact, the first who introduced into this country
Lalonette’s method of affecting the system by mercury applied to the
skin in vapour.

Hydropathy deals with a very potent agent, and applies it to a very
powerful and important organ, the skin; and it employs in combination
the energetic influences, temperature and moisture; so that we may be
assured there will be very little that is equivocal or infinitesimal in
_its_ results; that in almost every case it must do good or harm.

But it does not limit itself to these agencies. It has
“establishments;” that is to say, pleasant rural retreats, tastefully
laid-out gardens; plain diet; often, no doubt, agreeable society;
rational amusements; and, as we understand, good hours, with abstinence
from alcohol. These are, indeed, powerful agencies in a vast variety
of diseases. So that, if hydropathy be not very scientific, it is
certainly a clever scheme; and as there are very many people who
require nothing but good air, plain living, rest from their anxious
occupations, with agreeable society,—it is very possible that many
hydropathic patients get well, by just doing that which they could not
be induced to do before.

But here comes the objection: The skin is, in the first place, only
_one_ of the organs of the body, and it is in very different conditions
in different people, and in the same people at different periods.

It has, like other organs, its mode of dealing with powerful or with
injurious influences; and _if it deal with them_ in the full force
of the natural law, it affects (and, in disease, almost uniformly)
favourably the internal organs; but, on the other hand, _if there
be interfering influences opposed to the healthy_ exhibition of the
natural law, so that the skin do not deal with the cold, or other
agencies, to which it is subjected, _as it naturally should do_, then
the cold, moisture, or other agent, increases the determination of the
blood to the internal organs, and does mischief. This it may do in one
of two ways: we have seen both. 1st. The blood driven from the surface,
increases, _pro tanto_, the quantity in the internal organs: it must
go somewhere; it can go nowhere else. Or, if cold and moisture produce
not this effect, nor be attended with a reactive determination to the
surface, there may be an _imperfect_ reaction; that is, _short_ of the
surface of the body. In the first case, you dangerously increase the
disorder of any materially affected organ; in the latter, you incur the
risk of diseased depositions; as, for example, Tumours. We here speak
from our own experience, having seen tumours of the most malignant and
cancerous character developed under circumstances in which it appeared
impossible to ascribe the immediate cause to anything but the violently
depressing influence of hydropathic treatment on the skin, with a
co-existing disordered condition of internal organs.

In one very frightful case indeed, the patient was told, when he first
stated his alarm, that the tumour was a “crisis” or reaction; as sure
enough it was; but it was the reaction of a cancerous disease, which
destroyed the patient. But, as we have said, hydropathy has many
features which obviously minister very agreeably and advantageously
to various conditions of indisposition, whilst they favour the _bonâ
fide observance_ of something like a rational diet—a point of immense
consequence, and too much neglected in regular practice. Here again
we speak from actual observation. One man allows his patient to eat
what he pleases. An eminent physician replied to a patient who, as he
was leaving the room, asked what he should do about his diet, “Oh, I
leave that to yourself;” showing, as we think, a better knowledge of
human nature than of his profession. Another restricts his patient to
“anything light.” Others see no harm in patients eating three or four
things at dinner, “provided they are wholesome;” thus rendering the
solution of many a question in serious cases three or four times, of
course, as difficult. Now we do not require the elaborate apparatus
of a hydropathic establishment to cure disorders, after such loose
practice as this; and we do protest against the assertion that any such
treatment can be called, as we have sometimes heard it, “Abernethy’s
plan, attention to diet,” and so forth.

So far from anything _less_ than the beautifully simple views held
out by Abernethy being necessary, we trust that we have, some of us,
arrived, as we ought to do, at several improvements. But people will
confound a _plain_ diet, or a select diet, with a _starving_ diet, and,
hating restrictions altogether, naturally prefer a physician who is
good-natured and assenting; still this assentation is being visited, we
think, with a justly retributive reaction.

Hydropathy, in many points, no doubt, tends to excite attention to
the real desiderata; but it is nevertheless imperfect and dangerous,
because evidently charged with a capital error. It entirely fails in
that comprehensive view of the relations which exists in all animals
between the various organs; and on a sustained recollection and
examination of which, rests the safe treatment of _any one_ of them. It
is, therefore, unsafe and unscientific. Again, it is illogical, because
it proceeds, as regard the skin, on the suppressed premise, that it
will obtain a natural reaction; a thing, in a very large number of
cases, and those of the most serious kind, seldom to be calculated on.

It is quite clear, therefore, that, so far as hydropathy does good, it
effects it by the institution of diet, abstinence from alcohol, country
air, exercise, agreeable society, and, _we_ will suppose, in some
cases, appropriate care of the surface; all of which are, in a general
sense, beneficial to the nervous system and the digestive organs—the
points insisted on by Abernethy.

So long as the Public are not better informed, and until medicine
is more strictly cultivated as a science, they will necessarily be
governed by the first impression on their feelings; and so long as
this is the case, fallacies can never be exposed, except by the severe
lessons of experience. To hope to reason successfully with those whose
feelings induce them to adopt that which they decline to examine with
their intellect, is madness, and is just what Terence says of some
other feelings:

“Nihilo plus agas
Quam si des operam ut cum ratione insanias.”

But, although, therefore, we are neither hydropathists nor
homœopathists, we begin to see, in the very success of these things,
some good; and that the “great shadow of the evil” of a conjectural
science will one day be replaced by another example of the triumph of
an inductive philosophy; that the retiring confidence of the public
will induce in us a more earnest and successful effort to give them
a more definite science; and that, as Professor Smythe says, the
“returning spring will no longer renew the honours of the one,” whilst
it will gradually evolve the development of the other.

The efforts, too, which the profession are already making, though,
as we humbly consider, not in the right direction, will certainly
arrive in time at a path that is more auspicious. When we see the
hydropathist looking so much to the skin, homœopathy leading people to
think of _quantities_ of medicine; when, in the regular profession, we
see one man restricting his views to one organ, another to another,
a third thinking that _everything_ can be learnt only by examination
of the dead, thus confounding morbid anatomy with pathology—a fourth
_restricting_ his labours to the microscope, as if the discovery of
laws depended rather on the enlargement of sensual objects than on the
improvement of _intellectual_ vision; still we cannot but perceive
that these isolated labours, if _once concentrated by unity of purpose
and combined action_, would be shadowing forth the outline of a really
inductive inquiry.

Hydropathy and homœopathy are making powerful uses, too, of the
_argumenta ad crumenam_. Their professors are amassing very large sums
of money, and that is an influence which will in time probably generate
exertions in favour of a more definite science. Still, Medicine and
Surgery cannot be formed into a science so long as men consider it
impossible; nor can there be any material advance, if they will persist
in measuring the remedial processes of nature by their present power
of educing them—a presumption obviously infinitely greater than any
in which the veriest quack ever dared to indulge. Well did Lord Bacon
see the real difficulties of establishing the dominion of an inductive
philosophy, when he laboured so much in the first place to destroy the
influence of preconceived opinions—idols, as he justly called them.

You cannot, of course, write truth on a page already filled with
conjecture. Nevertheless, mankind seem gradually exhausting the
resources of Error: many of her paths have been trodden, and their
misleading lures discovered; and by and by that of Truth will be
well-nigh the only one left untried. In the meantime, we fear the
science is nearly good enough for the age. The difficulty of advance
is founded deeply in the principles of human nature. People know that
there are physical laws as well as moral laws, and they may rely on
it that disobedience and disease, sin and death, are as indissolubly
bound up with infractions of the one as well as the other.

It is true there are many who have (however unconsciously) discovered
that the pleasures procured by the abuses of our appetites, are a
cheat; and that permanent good is only attained by obeying those laws
which were clearly made for our happiness.

Error has, indeed, long darkened the horizon of medical science; and,
albeit, there have been lightning—like coruscations of genius—from
time to time; still they have passed away, and left the atmosphere as
dark as before. At length, however, there has arisen, we hope, a small,
but steady, light, which is gradually diffusing itself through the
mists of Error; and which, when it shall have gained a very little more
power, it will succeed in dispelling.

Then, we trust, Medicine will be seen in the graceful form in which
she exists in nature; as a Science which will enable us to administer
the physical laws in harmony with that moral code over which her
elder sister presides; but, whenever this shall happen, Surgery will
recognize, as the earliest gleams of light shed on her paths of
inquiry, in aid of the progress of science and the welfare of mankind,
the honoured contributions of John Hunter and John Abernethy.

“Eheu fugaces Postume Postume
Labuntur anni: nec pietas moram
Rugis et instanti senectæ
Adferet, indomitæque morti.”


“How swiftly glide our flying years,
Alas! nor piety, nor tears,
Can stop the fleeting day;
Deep-furrow’d wrinkles, frosting age,
And Death’s unconquerable rage,
Are strangers to delay.”


We have already observed that Abernethy had begun to feel the wear and
tear of an anxious and active life, when, after a tenure of office
for twenty-eight years as assistant, he was appointed surgeon to St.
Bartholomew’s Hospital. After a few years, he took a house at Enfield,
where he occasionally went at leisure hours, on Wednesday and Saturday;
and, as the Spring Course of Lectures came near to a conclusion, and
in the summer, sometimes on other afternoons. At this season, he had
been accustomed to doff the black knee-breeches, silk stockings, and
shoes, sometimes with, sometimes without, short gaiters, and refresh
one’s rural recollections with drab kerseymeres and top-boots; in which
costume he would at that season not unfrequently come down to lecture.
He was fond of riding, and had a favourite mare he called Jenny; and
many a time have we seen her jogging along on a fine summer afternoon,
and her master looking as happy as any schoolboy that he was escaping
from the botherations of Bedford Row and the smoke of London. Jenny was
a favourite mare, which Abernethy had for nearly twenty-five years. She
was a great pet, and her excellent qualities had been associated with
almost every little excursion of relaxation or pleasure. All things,
however, must have an end. At last, the poor animal became affected
with a kind of rheumatism, attended with much suffering. After various
hesitations, the pain of which those who are fond of animals can very
well understand, the order was given that she should be destroyed. This
took place in the stables behind Bedford Row. The family were all in
one apartment, except Mr. Abernethy, who was heard pacing up and down
his private room. A short pause, and the coachman is seen running from
the stable to say that Jenny was no more. One of his daughters ran to
Mr. Abernethy’s room to say, “it is all over, papa.” “Good girl,” said
he, patting her head, “to come and tell me so soon.” He is said to have
suffered greatly on this occasion.

Some years before this, he met with what might have been a serious
accident: in stooping forward, his horse threw up his head and struck
him a violent blow on the forehead and nose; as Mr. Abernethy first
thought, breaking the bones of the latter. He rode up a gateway, and,
having dismounted, was endeavouring to adjust the bruise and staunch
the blood, when some people ran to assist him, and, as he said, very
kindly asked him if they should fetch him a doctor; “but,” said
Abernethy, “I told them I thought they had better fetch me a hackney
coach,” which they accordingly did. He was conveyed home, and in a
short time recovered from the accident.

His taking the house at Enfield was probably a prudent measure; he
seemed to enjoy it very much, and especially in getting a quiet friend
or two down on a Saturday to stay over till the Monday; amongst whom, a
very favourite visitor was our respected friend Mr. Clift, of whom we
have already spoken. Abernethy had always, however, had what he used
aptly enough to term a fidgetty nervous system. From early life he had
been annoyed by a particularly irritable heart. The first time he ever
suffered materially from it was while he was yet a young man. He had
been exceedingly depressed by the death of a patient in whose case he
had been much interested, and his heart became alarmingly violent and
disordered in its action. He could not sleep at night, and sometimes
in the day it would beat so violently as to shake his waistcoat. He
was afterwards subject to fugitive returns of this complaint, and few,
unless by experience, know how distressing such attacks are.

We suspect that surgeons are more frequently thus affected than is
generally supposed. A cold, half-brutal indifference is one thing, but
a calm and humane self-possession in many of our duties is another,
and, as we saw in Cheselden, not obtained always without some cost;
the effects of this sometimes appear only when the causes have ceased
to recur, or are forgotten. A lively sensibility to impressions was
natural to Abernethy; but this susceptibility had been increased by
the well-known influence of the air and excitement of crowded cities
on people who are engaged in much mental exertion. His physical
organization, easily susceptible of disturbance, did not always shake
it off again very readily. At one period he suffered an unusually long
time from the consequences of a wound in dissection.

These not uncommon accidents occur perhaps a hundred or a thousand
times without being followed by any material results; but, if they
happen in disordered conditions of health, either of mind or body,
they are sometimes serious affairs, and usually of a more or less
active kind—that is, soon terminating in death or recovery. Not so in
Abernethy. The complaint went through various phases, so that it was
nearly three years, he used to tell us, before he fairly and finally
got rid of the effects of it. One of the most difficult things for a
man so actively engaged in a profession in London as was Abernethy,
is to get the requisite quantity of exercise; whilst the great mental
exertion which characterizes a London, as distinguished from almost any
other kind of life, requires that the digestive organs should be “up
to” pretty good living.

Then, again, Abernethy lived in the days of port wine; when every
man had something to say of the sample his hospitality produced of
that popular beverage. Abernethy, who was never intemperate, was very
hospitable, and always selected the finest port wine he could get,
which, as being generally full and powerful, was for him perhaps the
least fitted.

Mr. Lloyd, of Fleet Street, who was one of the old-fashioned family
wine-merchants, and one of the best men of his day, was the purveyor
of his Falernian; never was there a more correct application of
nomenclature than that which gave to him the title, by which he was
best known, of “Honest John Lloyd.” He was one of the kindest-hearted
men I ever knew: he had a great regard for Mr. Abernethy; and was
treated himself by almost everybody as an intimate friend. One day I
went there just as Abernethy had left. “Well,” says Mr. Lloyd, “what
a funny man your master is!” “Who?” said I. “Why, Mr. Abernethy. He
has just been here, and paid me for a pipe of wine; and threw down a
handful of notes and pieces of papers with fees. I wanted him to stop
to see if they were right, ‘for,’ said I, ‘some of these fees may be
more than you think, perhaps.’ ‘Never mind,’ said he; ‘I can’t stop;
you have them as I took them,’ and hastily went his way.”

Sedentary habits, however, as people now begin to find, do not
harmonize well with great mental exertion, or constant and anxious
occupation. In 1817, Abernethy felt his combined duties as surgeon to
the hospital, as lecturer there, and also at the College, becoming too
onerous, and therefore in that year resigned the Professorship. On this
occasion, the Council sent him the following unanimous expression of
their appreciation of his services.

“At the Court of Assistants of the Royal College of Surgeons in
London, holden at the College on the 15th day of July, 1817;

“Resolved unanimously:

“That the thanks of this Court be presented to John Abernethy,
Esq. for the series of Lectures delivered by him in the theatre
of this College, in the years 1814, 1815, 1816, 1817, with
distinguished energy and perspicuity, by which he has elucidated
the physiological and pathological opinions of John Hunter,
explained his design in the formation of the Hunterian Collection,
illustrated the principles of surgery, and thereby has highly
conduced to the improvement of anatomical and physiological
knowledge, the art and science of surgery, and to the promotion of
the honour of the College.”

This seems to have gratified him, as, under all circumstances, we can
readily understand it might do; and he accordingly replied to it as


“Sir and Gentlemen,

“To obtain the good opinion of others, is a universal object of
human actions; and we often strive to acquire it by circuitous
and absurd means; but to obtain the approbation of eminent and
judicious characters, by pursuing the direct path of professional
duty, is the most gratifying mode of seeking and receiving this
object of general ambition.

“I have ventured to premise these observations, to show you,
gentlemen, that I do not write inconsiderately, or merely as a
matter of form, when I thus return you my warmest thanks for the
distinguished honour you have conferred on me by your public
approbation of my _endeavours_[86] to discharge the duties of an
arduous office, to which I was elected through your kindness and

“I have the honour to remain,
“Sir and Gentlemen,
“Your very grateful and obedient servant,

We insert in this place a letter which he wrote about this time to Sir
William Blizard; because it shows two things which are characteristic:
the one, how constant he was in not allowing any considerations to
interfere with the lectures; and the other, the endurance of his old
attachment to Sir William Blizard. It is an apology for not having been
present at the Council.

“Dear Sir William,

“I was yesterday desired to see a patient residing seven or eight
miles from London. I could not go that day, for it was lecture
evening; I cannot go to-morrow for the same reason; consequently I
must go this evening. I hope you will consider these circumstances
as an apology for my _absence_ from the Board.

“If you cite my example as one misleading future Professors, be so
good as to remember that I retired, leaving the task which I had
undertaken incomplete, wherefore it became necessary to _explain
publicly_ to an indulgent audience my _motives_ for resigning the

“I remain, dear Sir William,
“Yours unremittingly,

Abernethy had at various periods of his life been subject to an
inflammatory sore throat of a very active kind, which would on some
days impede so as almost to prevent his swallowing, and then suddenly
terminate in abscess, leaving him perfectly well again. He was young
when these sorts of attack began; for in his lectures he used to speak
of one of them having subsided only the night before he had some
lectures to deliver before the Council of the College, when they were
accustomed to meet in the Old Bailey.

As he advanced in life, the disposition to disorder of the digestive
organs, which had hitherto shown a tendency to terminate in
inflammation of the mucous membrane of the throat, began to affect
other structures; and he became teazed and subsequently greatly
tortured by rheumatism. The disorder so termed (a kind of general name
for various conditions of disorder very different from each other, and
which occasionally affect, not only joints, but other structures) is
in many cases, as we all know, extremely painful; and is never more
excruciating than when muscular parts thus conditioned are affected by
spasm. These spasms were a source of much acute suffering to Abernethy.
His constant occupations gave him no opportunity of relieving himself
from work, except there was that accommodation of indisposition to
convenient times, which of course seldom happens.

In the early parts of his life, Abernethy, when he was out of health,
would take the first opportunity which his occupations allowed of going
a little way into the country; and there, by diet, and amusing himself
by reading and exercise, he would soon get well. But as he advanced
in life, he was not so ready to attend to himself as perhaps he ought
to have been. Besides, he would occasionally do things which incurred
unnecessary risks, which we ourselves have sometimes ventured to
mention to him.

Living, at the time to which we are now alluding, in Ely Place, and
attending his lectures long after we had commenced practice, we
frequently walked down with him to lecture; sometimes in the rain,
when we used to think his knee-breeches and silk stockings looked most
uncomfortable. Besides this, he was very careless about his umbrella;
I never recollect him on such occasions calling a coach, and I hardly
ever knew him come down to his evening lecture in his carriage. He
generally came to the two-o’clock lecture some minutes before the time;
and, as he often complained of cold feet, he would stand opposite one
of the flue openings in the Museum. One day, I ventured to suggest to
him that the transition of temperature to the cold place he occupied in
the theatre rendered this hardly prudent, when he said, “Ay!” and moved
away. Though temperate, without being very particular in his diet,
these other imprudences were unfortunate; because we saw him, every
year almost, becoming troubled more and more by his painful visitor.
The time, however, was now arriving when he was about to resign the
Surgeoncy of the hospital.

We have seen that, when elected to that appointment, he had been no
less than twenty-eight years assistant surgeon; he, however, took no
pains to indemnify himself for this long and profitless tenure of
a subordinate post; but, mindful of what he had himself suffered,
immediately on his appointment he did the best he could at once to
provide against others being subjected to such an unrequited service.
He accordingly, on his election, addressed a letter to the Governors of
the Hospital, of which, when the first edition went to press, we had
no copy. As we then stated, our friend, Mr. E. A. Lloyd, a friend and
favourite pupil of Abernethy’s, had found one, and kindly laid it aside
for us; but he unfortunately again mislaid it; and there is no copy of
it on the books of the hospital. Subsequently, Mr. Pettigrew has most
kindly sent us a volume containing the letter in question. To us it is
a very interesting document; but as we had already mentioned the most
important fact in it, we have not thought it necessary to reprint the
letter. We must not fail to repeat publicly our thanks to Mr. Pettigrew
for his kind assistance.

The object of the letter was to recommend some alteration in the
arrangement of the duties of the surgeons of the hospital; and, amongst
other things, that they should resign at the age of sixty, with a
retiring salary. Nothing could, we think, be more just or considerate
than such a proposal; and it came very well from Abernethy, who had
just stepped into the lucrative appointment. The proposal, however,
was not acted upon; and it would appear that his successors, however
much they may have at the time approved of the precept, have not been
in haste to follow the example. There is little doubt that Abernethy’s
proposal was as just and considerate of the interests of all parties,
as it was in favour of those of science. We cannot think that any one,
who considers the whole subject without prejudice, will arrive at any
other conclusion.

The absence, however, of any law on the subject, made no difference
to Abernethy; he had expressed his own intention of resigning at
the age of sixty; and when that time arrived, he accordingly did
so. The Governors, however, would not, on that occasion, accept his
resignation, but requested him to continue. This he did for about
another year, when, in 1827—having been elected in 1815,—he finally
resigned the hospital, in the following letter, addressed to the
President of the Hospital:

“St. Bartholomew’s Hospital,
“July 24, 1827.

“Finding myself incompetent to discharge the duties of surgeon to
your Hospital in a satisfactory manner, and having led my junior
to believe that I should resign my office at a certain period of
my life, I hereby tender my resignation accordingly. At the same
time, I beg leave to assure the Governors of my gratitude for their
appointment to the offices which I have held under them, and for
the good opinion and confidence which they have manifested towards
me. I annex a draft for £100 for the use of the Hospital.

“I am, dear Sir,
“Your obedient servant,

“To Rowland Stephenson, Esq.”

At the next meeting of the “Court” of Governors, it was proposed by Dr.
Latham, seconded by Mr. Wells, and unanimously resolved:

“That this Court accept, with great regret, the resignation of Mr.
Abernethy as one of its Surgeons, an office which he has discharged
with consummate ability for forty years; and the Court offers him
their best, their most unanimous, and warmest thanks for his very
long and important services.

“July 25, 1827.”

There is something significant in this vote of thanks, merging his long
period of assistant surgeon in the general expression of his services
as surgeon. It is very suggestive of the influence which had been felt
from the presence of his master mind, although so long in a position
which necessarily restricted its useful energies in regard to hospital
matters. We have little doubt that, had Abernethy become surgeon to the
hospital at a time of life when his physical energies were unimpaired,
he would have suggested many improvements on the system; but, with
little real power in this respect, and with men who were opposed to
him, he was just the last man in the world to commence a crusade
against the opinions of those with whom he was associated. The moment
he became surgeon, we see him endeavouring to remove an evil from which
he had greatly suffered, and which is obviously a most undesirable
state of things; namely, that men should so often arrive at a post
in which their active energies are most required, at a time of life
when those energies have been, perhaps, necessarily addressed to other
objects, have become weary with hope deferred, or already on the wane.

He was, also, very averse to so spacious a portion of the hospital
being devoted to the festive meetings of the Governors; and, on showing
it, would sometimes go so far as to say—”Ay, this is what I call the
useless portion of the hospital.” He continued to lecture another year,
when he resigned the lectures; and, in 1829, his appointment at the
College of Surgeons also.

In May, 1829, he wrote to Mr. Belfour, the Secretary of the College of
Surgeons (whose politeness and attention in facilitating our inquiries
at the College we are happy thus publicly to acknowledge), as follows:

“My dear Sir,

“Early in April, the thermometer was above 70°, and I had so
violent a relapse of rheumatism, that I have not been able (nor
am I now able) to leave this place since that time. Apologize to
the President, therefore, for my non-attendance on Monday. _Entre
nous_: as I think I shall not be able to perform the duties of
those situations which I now hold at the College, I think of
resigning them; yet I will not decide till I have talked with
Clift[87] upon it. If he could come down this or the following
Saturday, I should be glad to see him.

“I remain, my dear Sir,
“Yours very sincerely,

“Enfield, May 21.
“To Edmund Belfour, Esq.”

He accordingly, in July of 1829, resigned his seat at the Court of
Examiners, when the following Memorial was sent him by the Court of

“At the College, at the Court holden on Friday, the 17th of July,

“Present: Mr. Thomas, President; Mr. Headington, Mr. Keate,
Vice-Presidents; Sir William Blizard, Mr. Lynn, Sir A. Cooper,
Bart., Sir A. Carlisle, Mr. Vincent, and Mr. Guthrie:

“Resolved, that the following Memorial be entered in the minutes of
this Court:

“Conscious of having been enlightened by the scientific labours
of Mr. Abernethy; convinced that teachers of anatomy, physiology,
and of surgery (and consequently their pupils), have derived
most important information from these sources of knowledge; and
impressed that the healing art has been eminently advanced by the
writings of that excellent individual; the Members of the Court
of Examiners lament the tendered resignation of an associate
so endowed, and whose conduct in the Court has always been so

“Resolved also, that a copy of the foregoing Memorial be delivered
by the Secretary to Mr. Abernethy.”

He had by this time become a great sufferer—walked very lamely; and
this difficulty, interfering more than ever with his exercise, no doubt
tended to make matters worse. He consulted nobody, I believe, but his
old friend Dr. Roberts, of St. Bartholomew’s. He was induced to go for
some time into the country; and on his return, hearing that he was
again in Bedford Row, and not having seen him for some time, I called
on him one morning, about eleven o’clock.

I knew that he had been very ill; but I was not in the least prepared
to see him so altered. When I was shown into his room, I was so
struck with his appearance, that it was with difficulty I concealed
the emotion it occasioned; but I felt happy in observing that I had

He appeared, all at once as it were, to have become a very old man;
he was much thinner; his features appeared shrunk. He had always
before worn a good deal of powder; but his hair, which used to hang
rather thickly over his ears, was now thin, and, as it appeared to me,
silvered by age and suffering.

There was the same expressive eye which I had so often seen lit up
by mirth or humour, or animated by some more impassioned feeling,
looking as penetrating and intellectual as ever, but with a calmness
and languor which seemed to tell of continued pain, and which I had
never seen before. He was sitting at a table, on a sort of stool, as
it appeared to me, and had been seeing patients, and there were still
several waiting to see him. On asking him how he was, his reply was
very striking.

It was indeed the same voice which I had so often listened to with
pleasure; but the tone was exceedingly changed. It was the subdued
character which is expressive of recent suffering, and sounded to me
most mournfully. “Ay,” say he, “this is very kind of you—very kind
indeed!” And he somewhat distressed me by repeating this several times,
so that I hardly knew what to reply. He said he was better, and that he
could now walk pretty fairly again, “as,” said he, “you shall see.”

He accordingly slowly dismounted from his seat, and, with the aid of
two sticks, began to walk; but it was a melancholy sight to me. I had
never seen him nearly so lame before.

I asked him what he was going to do. He said he was going to Enfield
on the morrow, and that he did not think he should return. I suggested
that he might possibly try a drier air with more advantage; that I
feared Enfield might be a little low and damp, and not, possibly, the
best place for him. “Well,” he said, “anything is better than this.”
I very shortly after took my leave; not sorry to be again alone; for
I felt considerably depressed by the unexpected impressions I had
received from this interview. It was too plain that his powers were
rapidly waning. He went to Enfield on the following day (a Wednesday, I
think), and never returned again to practice. He lingered about another
year, during which time I once went to see him, when I found him
something better. He was able to see his friends occasionally, and at
times seemed to rally. In the spring, however, of 1831, he gradually
got weaker, and died on the 20th of April in that year.

He perfectly retained his consciousness to the last, and died as
tranquilly as possible. In exhausted conditions of the body, persons
will sometimes linger much longer than the medical attendant had
considered possible; in other cases, the flickering lamp becomes
extinguished many days before they had been apprehensive of immediate
danger. The latter was the case with Mr. Abernethy. Dr. Roberts had
just been to see him; and the family, who scarcely ever left him,
had followed the Doctor down into the dining room, anxious to hear
his report. This, although it gave them no hope as to the ultimate
result, expressed no apprehension of immediate danger. On returning to
Mr. Abernethy, but a few minutes had elapsed when he gently laid his
head back and expired; but with such entire absence of any struggle,
alteration of countenance, or other indication, that for a short time
it was difficult to realize the fact that he was no more. His body
was not examined; but, from the history and symptoms of his case,
there could be little doubt that there would have been found organic
changes, in which the valvular structures of the heart had more or less

He was buried in the parish church of Enfield. The funeral was a
private one; and there is a plain tablet on the wall over his vault,
with the following inscription:

H. S. E.

APRILIS DIE 20, A. D. 1831, ÆTATIS SUÆ 67.

Continue Reading


“Quidquid enim justum sit id etiam utile esse censent; itemque quod
honestum idem justum, ex quo efficitur, ut quidquid honestum sit
idem sit utile.”—CICERO.

The first thing, in consulting Abernethy, if you were a medical man,
was to be clear, and “well up” in the nature of the case; and the next
thing, not to state any opinion, unless you were prepared to give a
good reason for it. These conditions premised, we never saw any one
more unaffectedly deferential to the opinion of another.

A surgeon took a serious case to him, in which the question was as to
the removal of a large tumour in the neck, which seemed to be acquiring
connections of such depth and importance as to threaten (should that
step be desirable) to render the removal of it impossible. The patient
was advised to allow his surgeon in ordinary to state his case, and to
interrupt him only if he omitted anything in regard to it within the
patient’s knowledge. This was done; the general habits of the patient
described, with the difference which had existed antecedent to the age
of thirty, and subsequently thereto. Mr. Abernethy examined the tumour.

To the SURGEON. It is parotid, is it not?

SURGEON. I think not, sir.

ABERNETHY (_hastily_). Why not?

SURGEON. Because, sir, reflecting on the depth and situation of the
parotid gland, I should hardly expect the tumour to be so moveable.

ABERNETHY. Ah, I see! Very well. (Then to the patient). Well, sir,
I should advise you to attend to your general health, and continue
to follow Mr. ——’s advice on that subject. What I say is—— (Then
followed a short lecture on the digestive organs.)

PATIENT. Do you think, sir, I shall get rid of it?

ABERNETHY. Nay, I cannot tell that. But now suppose you pursue a plan
steadily, say for a month, and the tumour does not increase, will it
not be encouraging to you?

PATIENT. Certainly, sir.

ABERNETHY. Well, then, try it; for if its removal should become
necessary, you will at least be in better condition for the operation.
If it does not get larger, or otherwise inconvenience you, let it alone.

The patient had heard so much of Abernethy’s roughness, that he came
away equally pleased and astonished.

A surgeon took a Colonel in the army to him, with a case which was
progressing fairly, but, as he conceived, in consequence of the patient
not paying so much attention to his health as he was recommended to do,
not so satisfactorily as he desired. The Colonel briefly stated his

ABERNETHY. Show me your tongue. Ah! that is bad enough.

COLONEL. You are quite right there.

ABERNETHY. Well, man, I don’t require to be told that.

Here the surgeon stated the treatment, which had, in addition to
attention to the general health, involved some local administrations,
of which, in general, Abernethy approved, but, as it would seem, not in
this case. His difference of opinion he thus stated, in the presence of
the patient:

“Well, I say that there is a sufficient disorder of your digestive
organs to maintain the annoyances of which you complain; and I should
confine my attention to endeavour to put that disorder right. Mr. ——
seems to think that, in adding to this treatment the plan he proposes,
he will shorten the case. Well, that may be so; he has paid, I know,
a good deal of attention to this subject; and if I had one of my own
family ill with this complaint, I should feel perfectly satisfied, if
they were under his care. At the same time, I say what I think; and if
you do not find the general plan successful, then the means he proposes
might with propriety be added.”

No harm resulted from this difference of opinion; but much benefit. The
patient was not pleased with Abernethy; but he thought him very skilful
and very honest.

One day, a surgeon went to him under the following circumstances. A
patient who had recently recovered from a lameness, which, as alleged,
had its cause in the foot, on a relapse went to another surgeon. This
gentleman had, as it ultimately appeared, hastily decided that the lady
had a complaint in the hip; she was therefore consigned to bed, and
treated for disease of that part. After about three months, feeling
no better, she desired to see the surgeon under whose care she had
formerly been.

The surgeon was now very much annoyed; for he found that he had been
by many persons charged with having mistaken the case, which he had
never even seen on the second attack, and which now presented a phase
in which disease of the hip, to a hasty examiner, might easily be
suggested. He was not much better satisfied, when, after a careful
examination of the case, he felt convinced that there was no disease in
the hip, although the symptoms were more severe than ever. He declined
undertaking the case without a previous consultation with the surgeon
who had decided it to be a disease of the hip; but the patient being
immoveable in her opposition to this request, and offering any other
surgeon, or more, if required, her wishes were acceded to, and Mr.
Abernethy requested to visit the case. On going to the patient, the
surgeon explained to Mr. Abernethy the points at issue, but without
telling him to which view his own opinion inclined, or the positive
_dictum_ of his senior brother, a very eminent surgeon. “I shall,
therefore,” said he to Abernethy, “feel particularly obliged to you,
sir, if you will examine the case for yourself.”

When they were introduced to the lady, Abernethy said: “Well, now, I
should be very well satisfied with Mr. ——’s report of your case; but
he says I must examine the limb for myself: so here goes.”—A somewhat
repulsive beginning to a delicate lady, perhaps; but nothing could
be more cautiously gentle than his examination. In conducting it,
he had avoided one test which usually _does_ give a little pain. The
other surgeon, deeming the decision to be very important, reminded him
of this test (raising the limb and striking the heel gently), which
he then proceeded to do with equal gentleness. “That will do,” said
he. “Now, sir, shall we go into another room?” “No, sir,” replied the
surgeon. “If you please, Mr. Abernethy, I should prefer your at once
telling the patient what is your opinion on the case.”

He then declared his opinion; but, fearing he might injure one or other
party, with the following exordium: “Now, madam, we are all liable
to mistakes: there is no man living who does not make more or less;
and I am sure I make mistakes; therefore I may do so in my opinion
of your case. But for the life of me I cannot perceive that you have
any disease in your hip.” He then gave a short, but most lucid view
of what he conceived to be the cause of her pain, and illustrated it
by referring to something which happened to himself in one of his own
severe rheumatic attacks. The result proved that he was quite right as
to his view of the case; the lady, by exercise and other means (which,
had the hip been diseased, would have only exasperated her complaint),
had a good recovery.

One very great charm in Abernethy in consultation was, that there was
no difficulty in getting him to speak out. Some men are so afraid of
being wrong, that they never give you the whole of their opinion in a
case involving any difficulty. It is so obscure, and followed up by so
guarded a prognosis, that it sometimes amounts to no opinion at all.

Even with surgeons who were very unobjectionable, Abernethy in his
best manner contrasted very favourably. We recollect being very much
struck with this when, very young, we had to meet Mr. Cline and Mr.
Abernethy, within a few days of each other, in the same case. Mr. Cline
was very kind to the patient, elaborately civil; nor was there anything
which could be fairly regarded as objectionable; but his manner was
too artificial; the contrast in Abernethy was very agreeable. The case
was serious, and (as we thought) hopeless. Abernethy, the moment he
saw it, had his sympathies painfully awakened. Having asked a few
questions, he, in the very kindest manner, said, “Well, I will tell you
what I would do, were I in your situation.” He then proceeded to direct
how she should regulate her living, how avoid mischievous experiments,
and went into a rather lengthy series of directions, in the most
unaffected manner, without leaving the room, or having any private
consultation whatever. The lady, who was a distinguished person, and a
very accomplished woman, was exceedingly pleased with him.

His manner, as we shall by and by admit, was occasionally rough,
and sometimes rather prematurely truthful. One day, he was called,
in consultation, by a physician, to give an opinion on a case of a
pulsating tumour, which was pretty clearly an aneurism. On proceeding
to examine the tumour, he found a plaister on it. “What is this?” said
Abernethy. “Oh! that is a plaister?” “Pooh!” said Abernethy, taking
it off and throwing it aside. “That was all very well,” said the
physician; “but that ‘pooh’ took several guineas out of my pocket.”

On the other hand, he never failed to give the warmest and most
efficient sanction he could to what he conceived to be judicious
treatment on the part of a practitioner with whom he was in
consultation. Mr. Stowe has kindly sent me a very good example of this;
and it illustrates also another very valuable feature in a consultant:
the forbearance from _doing anything_ where nothing is necessary. A
gentleman had met with a severe accident, a compound dislocation of
the ankle, an accident that Abernethy was the chief means of redeeming
from habitual amputation. The accident happened near Winterslow Hut,
on the road between Andover and Salisbury, and Mr. Davis of Andover
was called in. Mr. Davis placed the parts right, and then said to the
patient, “Now, when you get well, and have, as you most likely will,
a stiff joint, your friends will tell you— ‘Ah! you had a country
doctor.’ So, sir, I would advise you to send for a London surgeon to
confirm or correct what I have done.” The patient consented, and sent
to London for Abernethy, who reached the spot by the mail about two in
the morning. He looked carefully at the limb, and saw that it was in
a good position, and was told what had been done. He then said, “I
am come a long way, sir, to do nothing. I might indeed pretend to do
something; but as any avoidable motion of the limb must necessarily be
mischievous, I should only do harm. You are in very good hands, and
I dare say will do very well. You may indeed come home with a stiff
joint; but that is better than a wooden leg.” He took a cheque for his
fee (sixty guineas), and made his way back to London.

Soon after this, an old clergyman, in the same neighbourhood, had a
violent attack of erysipelas in the head and arm. His family, becoming
alarmed, wrote up to his brother, who resided near Bedford Row, to
request Mr. Abernethy to go down and visit the patient. Abernethy said,
“Who attends your brother?” “Mr. Davis[69], of Andover.” “Well, I told
him all I knew about surgery, and I _know_ he has not forgotten it.
You may be perfectly satisfied. I shall not go.” Here, as Mr. Stowe
observes, he might have had another sixty guineas.

He always felt a great deal of interest about compound dislocations of
the ankle-joint; because of his conviction that amputation, then so
commonly resorted to, was unnecessary. He used to tell several cases in
his lectures. One of them we will briefly relate here. It was that of a
labouring man, who fell off a scaffold in his own neighbourhood; and,
amongst other surgeons, they had sent for Abernethy. When he got to
the house, he found, he says, “a poor wee man, lying on his mattress,
with a very complete compound dislocation of the ankle-joint. The joint
was completely exposed, and the torn skin was overlapping the edge of
the bone.” He placed the parts in their natural position, and drew the
skin out of the rent; and when he had thus adjusted it, as he said, a
horrible accident looked as if there had been very little the matter.
“Do you think, sir,” said the poor little man, “that this can ever get
well?” “Yes, verily,” said Abernethy. “Do not be out of heart about
it; I have known many such cases do well.” “Why, sir,” said the man,
“they have gone for the instruments.” “I now found,” said Abernethy,
“that two other surgeons had seen him, and had determined that it was
necessary to amputate. I felt that I had got into an embarrassing
predicament, and was obliged to wait until these heroes returned. When
they arrived, and saw the man lying so comfortably, they seemed a
little staggered: but one of them said, ‘Mr. Abernethy, you know the
serious nature of these accidents, and can you give us an assurance
that this will do well?’ I said, ‘no, certainly not; but if it does
not do well, you can have recourse to amputation afterwards, and my
surgical character is pledged no further than this. I give you the
assurance that no immediate mischief will come on to endanger the man’s
life. You may wait and see whether his constitution will allow him to
do well.’ I added: ‘I feel that I am got rather into a scrape; so you
must allow me to manage it in my own way.’ So I got splints, put up
the limb, varnished the plaister, and then told them about sponging
it continually, so as never to allow any increase of temperature. Now
there are two holds you have on a patient’s mind—hope and fear; and
I make use of both. So I said, ‘If you lie perfectly still, you will
do well; and if you move one jot, you will do ill—that’s all.'” The
remainder of the case need not be given. The man recovered, and saved
his limb.

We have referred to that case because, though relating to a
professional matter, there is a moral in it. He might easily have saved
himself all the trouble he took, and on the plea of etiquette; but
the poverty of the man pleaded for his limb, and the impossibility in
such a case, of the imputation of any wrong motive, left free exercise
for the prevailing feature of Abernethy’s character—benevolence. The
mention of the instruments secured to the poor man that _personal_
attention to details by Abernethy himself which a more wealthy patient
might not have so certainly obtained.

We have remarked before on his kindness to hospital patients; and
sometimes the expression of their gratitude would be very touching.
It is difficult or impossible to carry out Mr. Abernethy’s principles
of practice with _perfect_ efficiency in the atmosphere of a large
hospital in a crowded city, yet the truth of his views would sometimes
be impressed by very extraordinary and unexpected results. We select
the following as an example, for reasons which will be suggested by
the narrative. We are indebted to Mr. Wood[70], of Rochdale, for the
illustration; and, as we should only mar the scene by any abbreviation,
we must allow him to tell it in his own manner:

“It was on his first going through the wards after a visit to Bath,
that, passing up between the rows of beds, with an immense crowd of
pupils after him—myself among the rest—that the apparition of a poor
Irishman, with the scantiest shirt I ever saw, jumping out of bed, and
literally throwing himself on his knees at Abernethy’s feet, presented
itself. For some moments, everybody was bewildered; but the poor
fellow, with all his country’s eloquence, poured out such a torrent
of thanks, prayers, and blessings, and made such pantomimic displays
of his leg, that we were not long left in doubt. ‘That’s the leg, yer
honnor! Glory be to God! Yer honnor’s the boy to do it! May the heavens
be your bed! Long life to your honnor! To the divole with the spalpeens
that said your honnor would cut it off!’ &c. The man had come into
the hospital about three months before, with a diseased ankle, and it
had been at once condemned to amputation. Something, however, induced
Abernethy to try what _rest_ and constitutional treatment would do for
it, and with the happiest result.

“With some difficulty the patient was got into bed, and Abernethy
took the opportunity of giving us a clinical lecture about diseases
and their constitutional treatment. And now commenced the fun. Every
sentence Abernethy uttered, Pat confirmed. ‘Thrue, yer honnor, divole
a lie in it. His honnor’s ‘the grate dochter entirely!’ While, at the
slightest allusion to his case, off went the bed clothes, and up went
his leg, as if he were taking aim at the ceiling with it. ‘That’s it,
by gorra! and a bitther leg than the villin’s that wanted to cut it
off.’ This was soon after I went to London, and I was much struck with
Abernethy’s manner; in the midst of the laughter, stooping down to the
patient, he said with much earnestness: ‘I am glad your leg is doing
well; but never kneel, except to your Maker.'”

The following letter, though containing nothing extraordinary, still
shows his usual manner of addressing a patient by letter:


“In reply to your letter, I can only say what I must have said to
you in part, when you did me the honour of consulting me.

“Firstly. That the restoration of the digestive organs to a
tranquil and healthy state, greatly depends on the strict
observance of rational rules of diet. My opinions on this subject,
which are too long to be transcribed, are to be met with at page
72, of the first part of ‘Abernethy’s Surgical Observations,’
published by Longman and Co., of Paternoster Row.

“Secondly. Upon keeping the bowels clear, yet without irritating
them by over-doses of aperient medicine.

“Thirdly. I consider the blue pill as a probilious medicine, and
only urge that the dose be such as to do no harm, if it fail to do
good, and then to be taken perseveringly for some time, in order to
determine whether it will not slowly effect the object for which it
was given. In gouty habits, carbonate of soda, &c., may be given,
to neutralize acidity in the stomach, with light bitters; but
the _prescription of medicines of this kind_, as also any advice
relative to the cold bath, must rest with your medical attendant.”

Dated the 17th of September; as usual, with him, without the year,
which was about 1824.

It is obvious that very few professional letters are adapted for
introduction. This was one kindly sent us by Mr. Preston, of Norwich,
and was written to a gentleman in Yorkshire.

Few things were more pleasing or valuable in Abernethy, than his
modesty and his sense of justice. He knew his superiority well enough,
but he measured it—as Science shows us all should do—with reference
to what was still beyond him, and not by the standard afforded by the
knowledge of others. His sense of justice was, we think, never appealed
to in vain. The following letter has appeared to us significant in
relation to these points. Amid the peaceful glories of a useful
profession, there is nothing that sinks deeper or interests our regard
more, than a man, in the hour of success, remembering what is due to
others. We think this remark particularly applicable to the late Mr.
Tait, in the following case. The letter from Abernethy was obligingly
sent us by Mr. Tait’s son and successor. The remarks with which Mr.
Tait concludes his case, are as creditable to the writer as to him whom
they were intended to honour.

We have stated that Mr. Abernethy had been the first to extend the
application of John Hunter’s celebrated operation for the cure of
aneurism, to a vessel nearer the heart (the external iliac artery), on
which Mr. Abernethy placed a ligature in 1797. Mr. Tait, of Paisley,
had an extraordinary case of aneurism in both lower extremities, so
high up as to oblige him to place a ligature on the external iliac
artery on both sides of the body. The case occurred in an old dragoon,
and the two operations were performed at separate times, with great
judgment and with complete success. The case of course made some
noise, and was highly creditable[71]. In closing his account of the
patient, Mr. Tait observes: “The complete success which has attended
these operations, while, certainly, it affords me one of the highest
gratifications the practice of my profession can procure me, chiefly
affects Mr. Abernethy.

“Accident has placed under my care a case which, so far as I know, is
unparalleled in the history of surgery, and it has been cured; but I
have only put in practice what every surgeon of the day ought to have
done. When, thirty years ago, Mr. Abernethy formed the firm resolve
of cutting open the walls of the abdomen and seizing the external
iliac artery, he made a mighty step in advance, he formed an epoch in
the history of his profession. John Hunter, upon reflecting on the
hæmorrhage proceeding from the vessel below the sac, after an operation
in 1779, when Mr. Broomfield, ‘for security,’ had tied the artery three
or four inches above the aneurism, had probably the first glimpse at
his great improvement of tying the artery, in cases of aneurism, nearer
the heart. His eminent successor has extended the principles of the
illustrious Hunter.

“So firmly impressed was Mr. Abernethy with the certainty of ultimate
success, that, nothing daunted by the unfortunate issue of his two
first cases, he persevered, and at length successfully secured the
external iliac artery. His steps have been followed by a host, till at
length it needed but such a case as mine to add the finishing touch to
his well-earned fame. In doing justice to the merits of such men, we act
but the part of prudence; since, if we do not, indignant posterity will.

“Paisley, January, 1826.”

The following is Abernethy’s reply to a communication from Mr. Tait on
the subject, and couched in a tone, just in relation to Mr. Hunter,
modest and characteristic as regards himself.


“Dear Sir,

“I have read your interesting case in the ‘Edinburgh Journal,’ but
have no comments to offer. I have therefore only to thank you for
the honourable mention you have made of me. The progress of science
has given us reason to confide in the anastomosing[72] channels
for carrying on the circulation. The only question necessary to
be decided was—would _large_ arteries heal when tied? Every case
confirmed that point, and therefore there was little merit in
perseverance. Nevertheless, I feel grateful for your good opinion,
and with congratulation and best wishes,

“I am, dear sir,
“Yours very sincerely,

“Bedford Row, July 14.”
(Post mark 1826.)

The following portion of a note, necessarily mutilated by the
suppression of professional matter, we copy as a written evidence of
his not _in any way_ appearing to alter or add to a treatment which he
approved. It is written to a highly esteemed member of our profession,
Mr. Beaman, of King Street, Covent Garden. Mr. Beaman had sent a
patient alone to Mr. Abernethy, who, having seen him, gave him the
following note:

“My dear Sir,

“The patient says”—here the symptoms referring to the point to be
investigated are stated—”and if this be true, I have no wish * *
* * nor can I suggest better treatment than that which you have

“Yours very sincerely,

(No date, post mark 1825.)

The following letter to Mr. Wood, of Rochdale, reiterates his opinion
on a very important disease, contraction of the gullet or œsophagus,
and conveys a practical truth, which, if we may judge from the cases
published in the periodicals, is just as necessary as ever. We allude
to the too officious use of instruments in this affection, a lesson
of Abernethy’s, of the practical excellence of which Mr. Wood had
convinced himself by his own experience, as we ourselves have on many

“My dear Sir,

“I think as you do with regard to the difficulty of swallowing. It
seems likely to be the effect of irritability of the stomach; and
if so, the _passing of instruments, however soft and well-directed
they may be_, is not likely to be beneficial.

“Indeed, I have seen so little good from such measures, that I
should feel reluctant to employ them until impelled by stronger
necessity than exists in the present case. Spasmodic affection
in the part is, as you know, exceedingly common, and _continues_
for a great many years without producing permanent contraction.
With respect to the main object of the treatment of this case, I
cannot say more than you are already acquainted with, and which is
suggested at page 72.

“I have of late been personally convinced of the benefit of the
strictest attention to diet. Last summer, my stomach was so
disordered that it would not digest any thing, and I was constantly
tormented by the chemical changes which the food underwent in that
organ. I had scarcely any flesh on my bones, and sometimes every
ten minutes was seized with rheumatic spasms, which were as general
and severe as those of tetanus[73]. I went into the country, where
I could get good milk and eggs, and lived upon three ounces of
baked custard taken three times a day, drinking, four hours after
each meal, some boiled water that had been poured upon a small
quantity of ginger. Upon this quantity of food I regained my
flesh, and uniformly got better as long as I continued this plan
of diet, which was but for one month, for then I returned to town.
From the very first day, I had no more of these spasms. As for
medical treatment, I repeat that I cannot say more than you already
know. It gives me pleasure to find that you are settled to your

“I remain,
“My dear Sir,
“Very sincerely yours,

“Bedford Row, January 9.”

“Non ego paucis,
Offendar maculis, quas aut incuria fudit,
Aut humana parum cavit natura.”


“I will not be offended by a few blemishes, the result of
inattention, or against which human frailty has not sufficiently

Mankind have long established, by universal consent, the great
importance of “Manner.” It has been so ably and so variously discussed
by different writers, that it is next to impossible to say any thing
new on the subject, or what has not been even better said on the
subject already. Still it is equally true that it is a thing very much
less cultivated than its influence demands; so that really easy, good
manners continue to be a very rare and enviable possession. But if
manner be thus influential in the ordinary intercourse of life, it is
still more important in ministering to disease. People, when they are
ill, have, for the wisest purposes, their susceptibilities more vivid;
and it is happy for them when those in health have their sympathies—as
is natural, we think, that they should be—quickened in proportion.
No doubt it is a great subtraction from whatever benefit the most
skilful can confer, if it be administered in a dry, cold, unfeeling, or
otherwise repulsive manner. There is too a very sound _physiological_
as well as _moral_ reason for kindness. It is difficult to overrate
the value of that calm which is sometimes diffused over the whole
system by the impression that there is an unaffected sympathy in our
sufferings. We have of course, in our time, observed abundant varieties
of manner in our professional brethren; and we have often listened with
interest to conversations in society, in which the manners of various
medical men have been the subject of discussion, from which good
listeners might, we think, have often taken valuable lessons.

We are convinced that the disguise, worn by some, of an artificial
manner, leaves, on many occasions, no one more deceived than the
wearer. Many patients have their perceptions remarkably quickened
by indisposition, and will penetrate the thin veil of any form of
affectation much more readily than people imagine. In common language,
good feeling and kind manner are said to spring from the heart. If a
man feels kindly, he will rarely express himself otherwise, except
under some momentary impulse of impatience or indisposition.

There is no doubt that the secret of a kind and conciliatory manner
consists in the regulation of the feelings, and in carrying into the
most ordinary affairs of life that principle which we acknowledge as
indispensable in serious matters—of doing to others as we would they
should do to us.

We are not speaking of a _polished_ manner; that is another affair.
A man’s manner to a patient may be unpolished, or as homely as you
please; but if he really feels a sympathy for his patient, it will,
with the exception to be stated, never be coarse or unkind.

Some men are absurdly pompous; others, hard and cold; some put on a
drawling, maudlin tone, which the most superficial observer detects
as being affected. An honest sympathy is more acceptable than even a
polished manner; though doubtless that is a very desirable grace to a
learned profession.

In general, our own experience—and we know something of indisposition
in our own person—has induced us to judge favourably of the manner of
medical men.

There are, no doubt, exceptions, and sometimes in men in whom you would
least expect it. We have known men “eye” a patient, as if looking at
some minute object; some, jocosely familiar. One man has an absurd
gravity; another thinks he must be all smiles. We have known, too, the
adoption of a tone characterized by a sort of religious solemnity.
These, when assumed, are generally detected, and of course always
vulgar. Some even say really rude and unfeeling things, before any
thing has happened to provoke them. We attended a gentleman who had a
great deal of dry humour, and who was very amusing on such matters. One
morning, he said, “I saw Dr. —— on one occasion, and the first thing
he said to me I thought he might as well have omitted. ‘I see, sir,’
said he, ‘that you have taken the shine out of your constitution.'”

Abernethy’s manner was at times—always, in serious cases, and, so far
as we ever observed, to hospital patients—invariably, as unaffectedly,
kind as could be desired. It is too true that, on many occasions of
minor import, that impulsiveness of character which we have seen in
the boy, was still uncontrolled in the man, and led him to say things
which, however we may palliate, we shall not attempt to excuse.

It is true his roughness was very superficial; it was the easiest thing
in the world to develop the real kindness of heart which constantly lay
beneath it; and it is very instructive to observe how a _very little
yielding_ to an infirmity may occasionally obscure one of the most
benevolent hearts that ever beat in a human breast, with the repulsive
exterior of ungentle manners. Still, patients could not be expected
to know this; and therefore too many went away dissatisfied, if not

The slightest reaction was, in general, sufficient to bring him to
his self-possession. A lady, whom he had seen on former occasions,
was one day exceedingly hurt by his manner, and burst into tears. He
immediately became as kind and patient as possible, and the lady came
away just as pleased as she had been at first offended.

Reaction of a different kind would answer equally well. One day, a
gentleman consulted him on a painful affection of his shoulder, which
had been of a very excruciating character. Before he had time to enter
on his case, Abernethy said, “Well, I know nothing about it.” The
gentleman sharply retorted: “I do not know how you should; but if you
will have patience till I tell you, perhaps you then may.” Abernethy at
once said, “Sit down;” and heard him out, with the greatest kindness
and patience.

I am indebted to Thomas Chevasse, Esq. of Sutton Coldfield, Warwick,
for the following letter to a patient in Surrey, who had complained
that he did not receive any sympathy from him.

“Dear Sir,

“I am sorry to have said any thing that has offended you. I may
have felt annoyed that I could not suggest any plan of treatment
more directly curative of your malady, and expressed myself
pettishly when you did not seem to understand my meaning; for I
am a fellow-sufferer, and had tried what are considered to be
appropriate remedies, unavailingly. I assure you that I did not
mean to hurt your feelings, and that I earnestly hope the state of
your health will gradually improve, and that your local maladies
will decline in proportion.

“I am, dear Sir,
“Your obedient servant,

“Bedford Row, October 25.”

A surgeon was requested to visit a patient in one of the suburbs of
the metropolis. When he arrived there, he had to mount two or three
dilapidated steps, and to read a number which had been so nearly worn
away, that he was enabled to determine whether it was the number he
sought only by the more legible condition of its two neighbours. Having
applied a very loose, dilapidated knocker, an old woman came to the

“Does Captain —— live here?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Is he at home?”

“Yes, sir. Please, sir, may I be so bold—are you the doctor, sir?”


“Oh! then, sir, please to walk up.”

The surgeon went up a small, narrow staircase, into a moderate-size,
dirty, ill-furnished room, the walls of which were coloured something
between yellow and red, with a black border. An old man, in a very
shabby and variegated _deshabille_, rose from his chair, and, with
a grace worthy of a court, welcomed the stranger. His manner was
extremely gentlemanly, his language well chosen, the statement of his
complaint particularly simple and clear. The surgeon, who, like most
of us, sees strange things, was puzzled to make out his new patient;
but concluded he was one of the many who, having been born to better
things, had been reduced by some misfortune to narrow circumstances.
Everything seemed to suggest that construction, and to warrant no
other. Accordingly, having prescribed, the surgeon was about to take
his leave, when the old gentleman said:

“Sir, I thank you very much for your attention;” at the same time
offering his hand with a fee.

This the surgeon declined, simply saying:

“No, I thank you, sir. I hope you will soon be better. Good morning.”

“Stay, sir,” said the old gentleman; “I shall insist on this, if you
please;” in a tone which at once made the surgeon feel that it would
be painful and improper to refuse. He accordingly took it. The old
gentleman then said, “I am very much obliged to you, sir; for had
you not taken your fee, I could not again have the advantage of your
advice. I sent for you because I had understood that you were a pupil
of Mr. Abernethy’s, for whom I could not send again, because he would
not take his fee; and I was so hurt, that I am afraid I was almost rude
to him. I suppose, judging from the appearance of things here that I
could not afford it, he refused his fee; on which I begged him not to
be deceived by appearances, but to take it. However, he kept retreating
and declining it, until, forgetting myself a little, and feeling
somewhat vexed, I said, ‘By G—, sir, I insist on your taking it!’ when
he replied, ‘By G—, sir, I will not!’ and, hastily leaving the room,
closed the door after him.”

This gentleman has been dead some years. He lived to a very advanced
age—nearly, if not quite, ninety—and had many instructive points of
character. He was really in very good circumstances; but he lived in
a very humble manner, to enable him to assist very efficiently some
poor relations. To do this, he saved all that he could; and although
he insisted on the surgeon taking a fee when he visited him, he said
that he should not hesitate to accept his kindness when he called on
the surgeon. The intercourse continued many years; but with rather a
curious result.

After a time, growing infirmities converted what had been a
visit—perhaps once or twice a year—into occasional attendances,
when the rule he had prescribed to himself, of paying visits at home,
became characterized by very numerous exceptions; and, at last, by so
many, that the rule and the exception changed places. The surgeon,
however, went on, thinking that the patient could not do other without
disturbing existing arrangements. When, however, the old gentleman
died, about four hundred guineas were found in his boxes, wrapped up,
and in various sums, strongly suggestive of their having been (under
the influence of a propensity too common in advancing life) savings,
from the somewhat unnecessary forbearance of his medical attendant. We
know one other very similar occurrence.

Sometimes Mr. Abernethy would meet with a patient who would afford
a useful lesson. A lady, the wife of a very distinguished musician,
consulted him, and, finding him uncourteous, said, “I had heard of your
rudeness before I came, sir; but I did not expect this.” When Abernethy
gave her the prescription, she said, “What am I to do with this?”

“Anything you like. Put it in the fire, if you please.”

The lady took him at his word—laid his fee on the table, and threw
the prescription into the fire, and hastily left the room. Abernethy
followed her into the hall, pressing her to take back her fee, or to
let him give her another prescription; but the lady was inexorable, and
left the house.

The foregoing is well-authenticated. Mr. Stowe knows the lady well, who
is still living. But many of these stories, to our own knowledge, were
greatly exaggerated. Abernethy would sometimes offend, not so much by
the manner as by the matter; by saying what were very salutary, but
very unpleasant truths, and of which the patient perhaps felt only the
sting. We know a gentleman, an old fox-hunter, who abused Abernethy
roundly; but all he could say against him was: “Why, sir, almost the
moment I entered the room, he said: ‘I perceive you drink a good
deal,'” which was very true. “Now,” added the patient, very _naïvely_,
“suppose I did, what the devil was that to him!”

Another gentleman, of considerable literary reputation, but who,
as regarded drinking, was not intemperate, had a most unfortunate
appearance on his nose, exactly like that which frequently accompanies
dram-drinking. This gentleman used to be exceedingly irate against
Abernethy, although all I could gather from him amounted to nothing
more than this, that when he said his stomach was out of order,
Abernethy observed, “Ay, I see that by your nose,” or some equivalent

However rough Abernethy could occasionally be, there was, on grave
occasions, no feature of his character more striking than his humanity.
Dr. Barnett[74] had a case where Abernethy was about to perform a
severe operation. The Doctor, at that time a young man, was anxious
to have every thing duly prepared, and had been very careful. When
Abernethy arrived, he went into the room into which the patient was to
be brought, and, looking on the instruments, &c. on the table, said:
“Ay, yes, that is all right;” then, pausing for a moment, he said: “No,
there is one thing you have forgotten;” and then, throwing a napkin
over the instruments, added: “It is bad enough for the poor patient
to have to undergo an operation, without being obliged to see those
terrible instruments.”

Few people get off so badly in the world as poor gentlemen. There are
multifarious provisions in this kingdom for all sorts of claimants; but
a poor gentleman slips down between those which are not applicable
to his case, and those which are too repulsive to be practicable. His
sensibilities remain—nay, perhaps are sharpened—and thus, whilst
they tend to exasperate his wants, they increase the difficulty of
supplying them. There is here afforded a grateful opportunity for the
indulgence of what we believe, amidst some exceptions, to be the ruling
spirit of medical men: a sensitive philanthropy, which no men in the
world are more liberal in disbursing. Abernethy had his full share of
this excellence. There are multitudes of instances exemplifying it.
We are indebted for the following to Mr. Brown, of the respected firm
of Longman and Co. Abernethy was just stepping into his carriage to
go and see the Duke of ——, to whom he had been sent for in a hurry,
when a gentleman stopped him to say that he should be very glad if
he could, at his leisure, pay Mr. —— another visit at Somers Town.
Abernethy had seen this poor gentleman before, and advised a course
which it appeared that the patient had not resolution to follow. “Why,”
said Abernethy, “I can’t go now, I am going in haste to see the Duke
of ——.” Then pausing a moment before he stepped into the carriage,
he looked up to the coachman and said, quietly, “Somers Town.” This is
very characteristic. The fidgetty irritability of his first impression
at interference, and the beneficence of his second thought.

Dr. Thomas Rees knew a gentleman who was a man of ability, who had
been a long time ill, and who got a scanty living by his writings. Dr.
Rees called on Abernethy, one morning, and told him that the gentleman
wished to have his opinion; but that he had heard such accounts of him,
he was half afraid to see him. “And if he were not,” said Dr. Rees, “he
is not able to pay you. He is a great sufferer, and he gets his living
by working his brains.” “Ah!” said Abernethy; “where does he live,
do you say?” “At ——,” mentioning a place full two miles distant.
Abernethy immediately rang the bell, ordered his carriage, visited the
gentleman, and was most kind to him.

One day, a pupil wished to consult him, and found him, about ten
minutes before lecture, in the museum, looking over his preparations
for lecture—rather a dangerous time, we should have said, for
consultation. “I am afraid, sir,” said the pupil, “that I have a
polypus in my nose, and I want you to look at it.” No answer; but when
he had sorted his preparations, he said: “Eh! what?” The pupil repeated
his request. “Then stand upon your head; don’t you see that all the
light here comes from a skylight? How am I to look up your nose? Where
do you live?” “Bartholomew Close.” “What time do you get up?” “At
eight.” “That can’t be then.” “Why, sir?” “You cannot be at Bedford Row
at nine.” “Yes, sir, I will.” “To-morrow morning, then.” The pupil was
punctual. Mr. Abernethy made a most careful examination of his nose,
entered into the causes and nature of polypi, assured him that there
was nothing of the sort, and exacted from him a promise that he would
never look into his nose again. The gentleman, in his letter to me,
adds: “This I have never done, and I am happy to say that there has
never been any thing the matter.”

The following we have from a source of unquestionable authority:

Abernethy was attending a poor man, whose case required assistance at
a given time of the day. One morning, when he was to see this patient,
the Duke of York called to say that the Prince of Wales wished him to
visit him immediately. “That I cannot do,” said Mr. Abernethy, “as I
have an appointment at twelve o’clock”—the time he promised to visit
the poor man. “But,” said the Duke, “you will not refuse the Prince; if
so, I must proceed to ——.” “Ah!” said Abernethy, “he will suit the
Prince better than I should.” He was, however, again sent for, a few
hours later, when he of course visited the Prince.

Very many instances of his liberality were constantly occurring. The
following is a specimen:

The widow of an officer of limited income brought her child some
distance from the country to consult Abernethy. After a few weeks’
attendance, the lady having asked Abernethy when she might return home,
was told that she must remain some weeks longer, or he could not answer
for the well-doing of the case. In the meantime, having learned how
the widow was situated, he continued to take the fees, folding them up
in a paper. When he finally took his leave, he returned home, enclosed
the fees which he had received, with the addition of a cheque for £50,
with a kind note, saying, that as he understood her income was limited,
he had returned the fees, with an addition, which would enable her to
give the child, who could not walk, a daily ride in the fresh air,
which was important to her recovery.

He was, indeed, as it appeared to us, most liberal in the mode of
conducting his practice. When asked by a patient when he desired to see
them again, it was at the longest period compatible with a reasonable
observation of the case; and we doubt whether he ever took a fee where
he had even a _doubt_ as to the circumstances of the patient justifying
his so doing. It would be easy to multiply examples of this; but it
would be a constructive injustice to others to appear to bring things
out in high relief, or as _special_ excellences, which (notwithstanding
some exceptions) from our hearts we believe to be a prevailing
characteristic of the profession.

Abernethy had been, nearly all his life, without being improvident,
habitually careless of money; and, although he provided his family
with a comfortable competency, which very properly left their position
unaltered by his death, yet we doubt if ever any man, with the
opportunity of making so much, availed himself of that opportunity so

Many instances occurred of his carelessness in these matters.

He used to put his not very slowly accumulating fees anywhere;
sometimes by the side of his portfolio; sometimes on a shelf in his
bookcase, between something else which might be there. When he retired
from Bedford Row, they found a considerable heap of fees which he had
placed in the bookcase and forgotten—an anecdote which shows that he
must have been making some way in practice as early as his marriage,
exemplifies this sort of carelessness, and suggests its impropriety. He
was in the habit, even then, of leaving his fees on his table in his
private room. He thought, on more than one occasion, that some had been
removed: he, however, said nothing; but, having taken means to assure
himself of the fact, he marked some fees and allowed matters to go on
as usual. Again missing fees, he waited till the whole party, which
consisted of pupils residing in the house, were settled at breakfast.
“Gentlemen,” he said, “I must beg you to give me your purses.” This was
of course immediately done. In one of the purses he found the marked
fees. This individual has been dead many years. He turned out, as may
be supposed, _badly_.

It had become the fashion in Abernethy’s latter days to speak lightly
of him as an operator; and we have very little desire to rest any
portion of his reputation on this branch of our duty. Nevertheless,
when we first knew Abernethy, if we had had to be the subject of an
operation, we knew no man to whom we should have submitted with the
same confidence. He was considerate and humane; he did as he would
be done by; and we have seen him perform those operations which are
usually regarded as the most difficult, as well as we have seen them
ever performed by any body; and without any of that display or effect
too often observed, which is equally misplaced and disgusting.

His benevolent disposition led him to feel a great deal in regard
to operations. Like Cheselden and Hunter, he regarded them, as in a
scientific sense they truly are, the reproach of the profession; since,
with the exception of such as become necessary from accidents, they
are almost all of them consequent on the imperfection of Medicine or
Surgery as a science.

Highly impulsive, Abernethy could not at all times prevent the
expression of his feelings, when perhaps his humanity was most
earnestly engaged in his suppression of them. It was usually an
additional trial to him when a patient bore pain with fortitude.

One day, he was performing rather a severe operation on a woman.
He had, before commencing, said a few words of encouragement, as
was usual with him, and the patient was bearing the operation with
great fortitude. After suffering some seconds, she very earnestly,
but firmly, said, “I hope, sir, it will not be long.” “No, indeed,”
earnestly replied Abernethy; “that would indeed be horrible.”

In fact, he held operations as occupying altogether so low a place
in our duties, and as having so little to do with the science of our
profession, that there was very little in most of them to set against
that repulsion which both his science and his humanity suggested.

As he advanced in life, his dislike to operations increased. He was apt
to be fidgetty and impatient. If things went smoothly, it was all very
well; but if any untoward occurrence took place, he suffered a great
deal, and it became unpleasant to assist him; but he was never unkind
to the patient. It is, however, not always easy to estimate correctly
the amount of operative dexterity. Hardly any man will perform a dozen
operations in the same manner. We have seen a very bungling operator
occasionally perform an operation extremely well; whilst the very worst
operation we ever saw was performed by a man whose fame rested almost
entirely on his dexterity; and what made it the more startling, was
that it was nothing more than taking up the femoral artery. But whether
it were that he was not well, or had been careless _in the site_ of his
first incision, or in _opening the sheath_ of the vessels before he
passed his ligature, or all of these causes in conjunction, we could
not tell, because we were not quite near enough; but we never witnessed
a more clumsy affair.

The conditions calculated to ensure good operating, are few and simple;
there are _moral_ as well as medical conditions; and no familiarity
ever enables a surgeon, on any occasion, _safely_ to dispense with any
of them. When they _are all_ observed, operating usually becomes steady
and uniform; when _any_ of them are dispensed with or wanting, there is
always risk of error and confusion.

We are afraid that we should be hardly excused in a work of this
kind, were we to lay down the canons to which we allude. We cannot,
therefore, enter any further into the subject.

Previously to offering a few remarks on the causes of Abernethy’s
occasional irritability, we must not omit to mention a hoax that was
played on him. He had been in particularly good, boy-like spirits, and
had proposed going to the theatre; where he had enjoyed himself very
much. On reaching home, there was a message desiring his attendance at
Harrow. This was a very unwelcome finale. The hoax had been clumsily
managed, but it did not strike anybody at the moment; so it was decided
that Mr. Abernethy must go; and he took Mr. Skey with him. When they
got to Harrow, they drove to the house of the surgeon, and, knocking
him up, the surgeon came to the window in his night-cap, when the
following dialogue began. The name of the patient we shall suppose to
be Wilson.

“Does Mr. Wilson live here?”

“Who are you?”

“I say, then, is Mr. Wilson living here?”

“I say what do you want? Who the d——l are you?”

“I say that I want to find a Mr. Wilson; and my name is Abernethy.”

“Immediately,” says Mr. Skey, “off flew the night-cap.”

“I beg your pardon, Mr. Abernethy; what can I do for you,” &c.

“Is there a Mr. Wilson living here; and has he broken his leg?”

“Oh, yes, sir, he is living here; but he is very well, and has not met
with anything of the kind.”

Abernethy laughed heartily, and ordered the post-boy to drive him home

There would be no difficulty in multiplying anecdotes given to
Abernethy; but there are some objections to such a course. In the first
place, there are many told of him which never happened; others, which
may probably have happened, you find it impossible to authenticate;
and, lastly, there is a third class, which, if they happened to
Abernethy, certainly happened to others before Abernethy was born. In
fact, when a man once gets a reputation of doing or saying odd things,
every story in which the chief person is unknown or unremembered is
given to the man whose reputation in this way is most remarkable.
We need not say how impossible it is, in a Memoir of this kind, to
introduce, with propriety, matters thus apocryphal.

We have no doubt that, with a most benevolent disposition, Abernethy’s
manner, particularly as he advanced in years, evinced great
irritability; and we believe that it was the result of two or three
different causes, which, in their combined influence, got a mastery
which the utmost resolution was not at all times able to control. It
had formed the subject of numerous conversations between Abernethy and
some of his most intimate friends, and we believe had arisen, and been
unconsciously fostered by the following causes: “In early life, he had
been,” as he told Dr. Thomas Rees, “particularly disgusted with the
manner in which he had seen patients caressed and ‘humbugged’ by smooth
and flattering modes of proceeding, and that he had early resolved to
‘avoid that at all events.'” He further observed: “I tried to learn my
profession, and thinking I could teach it, I educated myself to do so;
but as for private practice, of course I am _obliged_ to do that too.”
We can easily understand how, in a sensitive mind, an anxiety to avoid
an imputation of one kind might have led to an opposite extreme; and
thus an occasional negligence of ordinary courtesy have taken the place
of a disgusting assentation.

A temper naturally impulsive, would find in the perplexities which
sometimes beset the practice of our profession, too many occasions
on which the suggestions of ruffled temper, and of fear of improper
assentation, would unfortunately coincide; and thus tend to intermix
and confound the observance of a praiseworthy caution, with a yielding
to an insidious habit. If to this were now added that increase of
irritability which a disturbed and fidgetty state of physique never
fails to furnish, and from which Abernethy _greatly suffered_, the
habit would soon become dominant; and thus an originally good motive,
left unguarded, be supplanted by an uncontrolled impulse. We believe
this to have been the short explanation of Abernethy’s manner; all we
know of him seems to admit of this explanation. It was a habit, and
required nothing but a check from his humanity or his good sense to
correct it; but then this was just that which patients were not likely
to know, and could have been still less expected to elicit.

Again, most men so celebrated are sure to be more or less spoiled.
They become themselves insensibly influenced by that assentation
which, when detected, they sincerely despised. The moral seems to be,
that the impulses of the most benevolent heart may be obscured or
frustrated by an irritable temper; that habits the most faulty may rise
from motives which, in their origin, were pure or praiseworthy; that
it is the character of Vice to tempt us by small beginnings; that,
knowing her own deformity, she seldom fails to recommend herself as the
representative, and too often to assume the garb, of Virtue; that the
most just and benevolent are not safe, unless habitual self-government
preside over the dictates of the intellect and the heart, and that the
_impulse_ to which _assent_ is yielded to-day, may exert the influence
of a command to-morrow; that, in fact, we must be masters or slaves.

“Rege animum qui nisi paret

The views which we have thus ventured on submitting, are verbatim
those which appeared in the former editions of these Memoirs, and,
consequently, were written long before we were favoured with the
following letter. It was written to his daughter Anne, before her
marriage with the late Dr. Warburton, dated Littlehampton, August 13,
and is remarkably corroborative of some of the preceding remarks.

“My dear Anne,

“Lack of employment is, as I believe, the cause of your receiving
this note in reply to the one I received from you by your mother.
Certain I am that I never thought of writing an answer till just
now, when it occurred to me that it would be polite to do so, which
very phrase had nearly prevented the intention. Why have all the
legitimate children of John Bull an aversion to politeness? ‘Tis
because it so commonly covereth a multitude of sins; because, with
honest simplicity, they have often caught hold of the garb and
found that it concealed deformity and malice. I frankly acknowledge
that I may have carried my detestation too far, because it does not
necessarily follow that our best friends should not wear becoming
and fashionable apparel. I like to see them _en deshabille_,
however. ‘Tis the man, and not the dress, I am concerned about.
I tell you, sincerely, that I take your note to be one of many
evidences of your having both a good head and heart. Other young
ladies would have spoken to mamma. Enough of this unprofitable chat.

“Yours ever,

“Little Hampton, 13th August.”

When the editors of the medical periodicals first began to publish
the lectures given at the different hospitals, there was considerable
discussion as to the propriety of so doing. The press, of course,
defended its own views in a spirit which, though not always unwelcome
to readers, is frequently “wormwood” to the parties to whom the press
may be opposed.

We are not lawyers, and therefore have no claim to an opinion, we
suppose, on the “right;” but, as regards the general effect of this
custom _as now practised_, we are afraid (however advantageous it may
be to the trade to obtain gratuitously these bulky contributions to
their columns) that doubts may not be unreasonably entertained whether
it is of advantage to science, to the character of our periodical
literature, or the profession.

The publicity which it gives to a man’s name, induces men to contribute
matter which it would often have been, perhaps, more advantageous to
them to have suppressed; and the proprietors, so long as a periodical
“pays,” are not likely to quarrel with that which they get for nothing
but the expense of publication.

Mr. Abernethy was very much opposed to the publication of his lectures;
but, though not insensible by any means to the occasionally caustic
remarks of the press, he does not seem to have been much annoyed by them.

The following is an extract from a letter, in which he expresses
himself as opposed to the conduct of those who publish lectures
without the permission of the authors. We suppress that part, because
it involves his opinion of the conduct of individuals. As regards his
personal feelings, he says:

“Though I have been so long in replying to your letter, I have felt
very grateful for the kindness which induced you to take up the
cudgels in my behalf. At the same time, I must say that, had I been
at your elbow, I should have hinted to you that the object was not
worth the trouble you have been so good as to bestow upon it. No
one can expect to escape slander and misrepresentation; and these
are so commonly bestowed upon all, that they have little or no
influence on the minds of persons of character and judgment.

“With many thanks and best wishes,

“I remain, my dear sir,
“Yours very sincerely,


When Mr. Abernethy was appointed _surgeon_ to St. Bartholomew’s
Hospital, in 1815, he had already been twenty-eight years assistant
surgeon, and was therefore fifty years of age before he had an
opportunity of taking an active share in the practical administration
of the Hospital. This is one of the many effects of a System of
which we shall presently give a sketch. He was thus invested with
the additional duties of Surgeon of the Hospital, and Professor to
the College of Surgeons, at a time of life when most people, who
have commenced young and laboured hard with their intellects, as
distinguished from their hands, begin to feel their work. This was
the case with Abernethy. We do not think that his original physical
organization was to be complained of; he had been active and energetic,
he was of moderate stature and well-proportioned; a magnificently
poised brain, judging phrenologically; and, in short (under favourable
circumstances), he appeared to have had the elements of long life; but
we think that his organization—and especially the presiding power, the
nervous system—was ill-adapted either for the air, the anxieties, or
the habits of a crowded city; or the somewhat pestilential atmosphere
of a dissecting-room.

We saw him, therefore, ageing at fifty very sensibly, and rather more
than is in general observable at that period. He complained, in 1817,
of the fatigue of the College lectures, coming, as they did, on the
completion of a season of the “mill-round” of hospital tuition and
practice. So that, when we mentioned the period of his lectures at the
College as on so many accounts the zenith of his career, there was
the serious drawback arising from a certain diminution of strength
which had never been, at best, equal to the _physical_ fatigue of his
multiform avocations. All this arose partly out of a System, which,
although, like all evils, not allowed to proceed without being charged
with elements of remotely prospective correction, has been the parent
of much mischief. This is what we have called the “Hospital System,”
some of the more important features of which we will now present to our

[Footnote 74: This gentleman, who retired some years since from
practice, died at Norwood, about a month ago, at the age of 73. Dr.
Barnett was born at Malmesbury, and was an early pupil of Abernethy’s,
and a friend of Dr. Jenner’s; he practised many years as a general
practitioner in Charter-House Square, where he realized, we believe,
a comfortable competency. He was distinguished by a singularly mild,
gentlemanly, and inoffensive bearing, not less than by the confidence
reposed in his skill and judgment by a large list of patients and

“——Non hæc sine numine Divum

ÆNEID, lib. ii, 1. 777.

If we would view any human institution dispassionately, we must
distinguish the vices of System from the faults of those who administer

Trite as this remark may be, the caution it involves is just that which
is too frequently overlooked or unobserved. By a careful attention to
the distinction it implies, we may develop the elements of rational
reform, as contrasted with Utopian schemes; which, whatever of abstract
truth they may contain, are frequently useless, simply because they are
impracticable. We cannot effect any material change in human nature
by any summary legislation, nor prevent the obtrusive necessities of
daily life from bringing down the soaring aspirations of mind, to the
humble level of the practicabilities of matter. Whoever, therefore,
expects that any body of men, invested with irresponsible power, will
hesitate to exercise it so as to procure, as they believe, the maximum
of advantage to themselves,—might just as hopefully quarrel with the
negro on account of his complexion. Do what you may, Man is Man “for
a’ that;” but whilst it is necessary to remember this, it is by no
means so, to do it in a spirit of unkindness or hostility, nor in any
sense opposed to brotherly love; but, on the contrary, in a tone of
mind which, alike mild and uncompromising, desires to promote universal
harmony and good feeling, by removing the temptations which experience
has shown to be influential in disturbing such relations.

Neither should we quarrel with a man who endeavours to do the best
he can for his family and friends. Should he, even in this pursuit,
compromise his duty to the public, it is very _possible_ that the
objects which he had in view may have been in themselves praiseworthy,
and therefore, instead of exasperating our blame, may readily
_extenuate_ faults which it may be impossible to excuse.

The truth is, that the interests of the public and of individuals are
seldom, if ever, incompatible; the occasions on which they appear to be
so are not unfrequent; those in which they really clash are extremely

Wherever circumstances occur in which the temptation of a present
fruition is found habitually to lead men to courses which, however
apparently promotive of their own interests, are really detrimental to
those of the public,—it becomes very necessary that the public should
impose safeguards against such an injurious exercise of power.

The hospitals of London, as we formerly observed, are, in the main,
very fine institutions. They are many of them very wealthy, which
generally means powerful also.

The Governors, as they are termed, consist of certain noblemen and
gentlemen; the latter being, for the most part, drawn from the more
wealthy sections of the mercantile and trading classes.

The knowledge possessed by these gentlemen of the requisitions of
a large public hospital, must (special instances excepted) be very
measured; and be, in the main, derived from the medical officers with
whom they are associated.

It thus happens that the administration of the hospital is in great
part confided—as, with _some restrictions_, it ought to be—to the
medical officers. The interests of these gentlemen, it may be assumed,
would be best promoted by carrying out in the most efficient manner
the benevolent objects of the institution: and we believe, looked
at fairly and comprehensively, this would be really the case. The
duties of a large hospital, however—if they are to be performed
conscientiously—require much time, not a little labour, and some
health to boot. Now all these, in a crowded community, are very costly
articles; and which must, in justice—and, what is material, in fact
too—be fairly remunerated. The public never _really_ pay so dearly, as
when they _appear_ to get labour for nothing.

Here we come to the first defect in the “Hospital System.”

It might be supposed that, with ample means, the Governors of
Hospitals, by adopting such previous tests as were in their power,
would have secured the most efficient officers, by paying them
remunerative salaries; and, having retained them as long as their
services were deemed efficient, or the duration of them justified, that
they would have released them from the necessity of further exertion
by a retiring pension. No such thing. The Hospital gives nothing:
actually, there is a small nominal retaining fee, as it were, of about
£60 to £100 a year, and the medical officer is left to obtain his
remuneration for time, trouble, and health, by such private practice as
his reputation or the _prestige_ of being attached to an hospital may
afford; from fees from pupils, or such other means as the position he
occupies may place within his power.

He very naturally sets to work to do the best he can; and from this
first budding, we very soon arrive at the full blossom of the System;
one effect of which is, that, in hospitals, which have so large a care
of public health—institutions which, whether correctly or incorrectly,
give so much of the tone to the medical opinions of the day, which
exert, either directly or indirectly, an influence on the claims of
hundreds to public confidence—that in these hospitals there is _not
one single surgeoncy that is fairly and bonâ fide open to scientific

Let us now examine a little into the machinery by which these results
are brought out.

The experience afforded by the hospitals necessarily supplies abundant
means for instructing students in surgery. They are accordingly
admitted on paying certain fees to the surgeon; and this at once
supplies a large revenue. This revenue is of course regulated by the
number of pupils; and as there are in London many hospitals, so it
follows that there is an active competition. Thus, some time before
the season commences, the advertisements of the medical schools occupy
a considerable space in the public journals, and circulars are also
liberally distributed.

Well, the points here, as in all other cases, are the advantages
offered, and the price paid—the maximum and minimum respectively. Here
we arrive at the elements of numerous evils.

Students are not always—and before they try, hardly ever—judges of
a school. The general reputation of a man (as he is never subjected
to open competition) is no test whatever of his comparative power
in _teaching_ students; but they are accustomed to ascribe great
importance to operations; and, _cæteris paribus_, they incline to
prefer that hospital where the greatest number are supposed to be

This arises from various causes; in some of which the public play no
unimportant part. The student has perhaps seen, in the country, a
good deal of medical and surgical practice; but very few operations.
His stay in London is comparatively short, averaging, perhaps, not
more than the better part of two years. Unnecessary length of time is
generally inconvenient, always expensive, and the student is naturally
anxious to see _most_ of that which he will have _least_ opportunity
of observing elsewhere. Moreover, he knows that when he returns to the
country he may save twenty limbs, before he obtains the same amount
of _reputation_ that he may possibly get by _one amputation_—the
ignorance of the public, here, not appreciating results which very
probably involved the exercise of the highest talent, whilst they are
ready to confer a very profitable distinction on that which does not
necessarily involve any talent at all.

We have no wish whatever, and certainly there is no necessity, for
straining any point in reference to this very serious matter; but these
two facts are indisputable—that the surgeons obtain their remuneration
from the hospitals by the fees they obtain from the pupils; and,
_cæteris paribus_, the pupils will flock the thickest where they expect
to see most operations.

The next thing that we would submit, is that the _prestige_ in favour
of operations is both directly and indirectly opposed to the progress
of scientific surgery. Almost all operations, commonly so termed, are
examples of defective science. To practical common sense, therefore,
it would appear a very infelicitous mode of obtaining the maximum of
a man’s genius in aid of the _diminution_ of operations, to open to
him a prospect of enriching himself by the _multiplication_ of them.
We desire to consider the subject with reference to its scientific
bearings only, and would avoid entirely, were that possible, any appeal
merely to the feelings. Such impulses, however right, are apt to be
paroxysmal and uncertain, unless supported by the intellect. But, on
such a subject, the feelings must necessarily become more or less
interested. Wherever a system takes a wrong direction, a great many
minor evils insensibly grow out of it.

The erection of a theatre for the purpose of operating, though founded
on a feasible pretext, is a very questionable measure; and, unless of
clear advantage to the profession or the public, is surely not without
some character of repulsion. As regards art and science, it is certain
that not more than twenty or thirty can be near enough in the theatre
to see anything that can be really instructive in the performance
of operations. In the absence of actual advantage, therefore, an
exhibition of this kind is more calculated to give publicity to
the surgeon operating, than it is to raise the tone or chasten the
feelings of men about to enter a profession which almost daily
establishes requisitions for our highest faculties. Operations without
opportunities of real instruction, are merely unprofitable expenditure
of valuable time. That which is viewed as a sort of _exhibition_
to-day, may be with difficulty regarded in the light of a _serious
duty_ to-morrow. Were the object to tax the sensibility of a student,
and blind him to any higher association with pain and suffering than
that afforded by custom and chloroform, and to substitute for a
dignified self-possession and sympathy with suffering, which each kept
the other in due control, an indifference to everything save adroitness
of manipulation and mechanical display,—no machinery could be better
calculated to effect such objects; but science and humanity require
very different qualifications, and experience has shown that they are
neither incompatible nor beyond our power.

The humanity and science that beholds, in operative surgery, the lowest
of our employments, and which would thence be impelled to seek, and as
experience has taught us to seek successfully, to diminish the number
of such exhibitions, and to lessen the suffering of those which are
still retained, is perfectly compatible with coolness and skill in the
performance of them.

When we speak of lessening pain, we must not be understood as alluding
to chloroform, or agencies of that kind. We have, on the contrary, the
greatest distrust of their utility; we do not hesitate to admit the
propriety of their use in certain cases; but we are satisfied that,
as at present employed, a very few years will make a great change.
Many a so-called incurable case has been shown to be curable by the
hesitation of the patient to submit to an operation. We have published
some ourselves, wherein we joined in recommending the measure which the
patient declined. Many deaths that we _do know_ have already occurred
from the use of chloroform; and a _significant_ remark was made by a
man who had considerable reputation in this way. He said: “Chloroform
is a good thing for operating surgeons.”

To return from this digression. The most distinguished surgeons ever
known in this country have shown us how to combine, in the highest
degree, dexterity and skill, with science and humanity; together with
a just estimate of the low position occupied by operations in the
scale of our important studies. I may allude to two more particularly,
Cheselden and John Hunter; the former, the most expert and successful
operator of his day, in the European sense of the word, has left us a
satisfactory declaration on this subject. Cheselden acknowledges that
he seldom slept much the night previous to the day on which he had any
important operation; but that, once engaged in operating, he was always
firm, and his hand never trembled. John Hunter was not only a good
operator himself, but he deduced from observation one of the greatest
improvements in operative surgery. His discovery had all the elements
of improvement that are possible in this branch of the profession.

An operation which had been founded upon erroneous views of the nature
and relations of the parts affected—which had been always tedious and
painful in performance—which, whether successful or not, entailed much
subsequent suffering, which in its results was highly dangerous, and
which was very commonly followed by the loss of the limb or life,—was
replaced by one founded on more correct views of the disease, easy and
simple in its execution, occupying not more than a very few minutes,
and which, so far as regards the purpose for which it was instituted,
and to which it should be restricted, is almost invariably successful.
If it be performed under circumstances implying conditions _contrary
to those on which Mr. Hunter’s operation was founded_, very different
results have no doubt taken place; but, when properly applied, his
operation for aneurism is no doubt one of the greatest improvements in
operative surgery.

John Hunter treats of operations in terms which show how low he rated
that part of our duties. He speaks of them as humiliating examples of
the imperfection of our science, and figures to himself an operator
under the repulsive symbol of an armed savage. “No surgeon,” said he,
“should approach the victim of his operation without a sacred dread and
reluctance, and should be _superior to that popular éclat generally
attending painful operations, often only because they are so_, or
because they are expensive to the patient”—p. 210. Abernethy, whose
keen observation saw the difficult web which various sophistries,
to use no harsher term, had thrown around the subject, was very
characteristic in the manner in which he dashed it aside, and pointed
to the salient source of error.

“Never perform an operation,” he would say, “on another person, which,
under similar circumstances, you would not have performed on yourself.”

The truth is, that operations, to be performed properly, must be
properly studied. They must be frequently performed on the dead, and
afterwards carefully examined. There is a wide difference between
neglecting a necessary study and making that the test of science which
is the most emphatic proof of its imperfection. We have ourselves had
no lack of experience in this branch of the profession, and have
included not a few operations which are too commonly delivered over to
men who are said to devote themselves to special objects. The result of
our experience satisfies us in entertaining the views which the most
distinguished men have held on this subject; whilst we are persuaded
that few things have contributed more to impede the progress of science
than the _abuse_ of operations.

To return to the surgical appointments of the hospital.

The positions which had at first been left without any remuneration,
become, by the machinery described, very lucrative; directly, by the
fees paid by the pupils; and indirectly, in some cases, by keeping the
surgeon constantly before the public. Any _prestige_, therefore, in
obtaining these appointments, is of great value; but, if that do not
really involve _professional excellence_, it is as plain as possible
that the public may be very badly served, and an evil generated equally
opposed to the interests of science and humanity. It is obvious that
the only legitimate grounds of eligibility are moral and professional
superiority, as determined by the test adopted at public schools and
universities—namely, public competition. Now, what are the tests
employed? Without meaning to insinuate that moral or professional
eligibility is _wholly_ disregarded—no system in these days will
support that—still the eligibility depends on a qualification which
few would beforehand have imagined. It is certainly something better
than Mr. Macaulay’s joke in relation to the proposed franchise to
the Militia—namely, that the elector should be five feet two—but
something not much more elevated; namely, that a bounty should have
been paid to one of the hospital surgeons in the shape of an apprentice
fee; thus making the holding one of the most responsible offices in the
profession—a condition, which absolutely ignores relative eligibility
of skill, steadiness, assiduity, and humanity; and which recognizes
them only in such shape that the possession of office is practically
made to depend on a point absolutely extrinsic to any one important
requisition recognized by the public or the profession.

We need not insist on the tendency of this system to the protection of
idleness and incapacity, or the injustice inseparable from it to the
young gentlemen whose interests it is supposed to guard. One necessary
consequence is obvious—namely, that the hospitals, instead of having
to select from the general body of pupils, or from the more industrious
or talented of them, is obliged to choose from a very small minority.

It is, in fact, just as if scholarships and fellowships at public
schools and universities were conferred without any reference to the
proofs which the candidates might have given of their talents or
industry; but were distributed to those who had given a certain fee to
a particular professor. Would any man in his senses doubt as to the
influence of such a plan on the interests of classical literature or
mathematical science? It seems to us impossible that men should really
differ on that point, or hesitate to admit that, _mutatis mutandis_,
whatever the science might be, so far as the cultivation of it could
be influenced by system, the result must be alike prejudicial in all
cases. We are, however, far from arriving at the end of the System by
this general statement.

The public and the government, uninformed or unmindful of this
“system,” wish to consult authorities on professional matters. They
not unnaturally look to those who hold public appointments, because
these afford the _prestige_ of extensive opportunity, which is supposed
to imply, and under a fair system would ensure, skill and experience.
Men are apt to look at a man’s position, without stopping to inquire
_how_ it was obtained; and although position may cut both ways, and in
particular instances “throw a cruel sunshine” over incapacity, still
amongst gentlemen extreme cases are not to be expected; the rule is
much more likely to be a respectable and protected mediocrity, which is
just that tone which has rarely done anything to enlarge the boundaries
of any kind of knowledge.

It happens, however, from the “system,” and the position thus given to
those who are supposed to profit by it, that the interests of the poor,
and, in a considerable degree, those of the rich also, are, in a very
large sense, confided to their care.

It thus follows that positions, in themselves highly desirable, and
which enable men to exert considerable influence on the progress of a
science, on the sound condition of which the physical comforts, and in
no small degree the moral condition, of mankind depend, are occupied
by men who have undergone none of those tests which public competition
alone affords, and which the _summi honores_ of almost every other
profession either directly or indirectly imply.

So far for one mode in which the interests of the public are
compromised; but there are many other channels. The government,
ignoring the evils of this system, have placed the regulation of the
surgical branch of the profession in the hands of a body of men whom,
when we examine, we find to be no other than the apprentices we had
recognized at the hospital, grown into the full bloom of a legislative
body—whence again are chosen Presidents, Vice-Presidents, Examiners,
&c., of the Royal College of Surgeons of London!

If, fatigued with this machinery, we walk to the Royal Medical and
Chirurgical Society—a chartered body for the especial cultivation of
science—we meet, as its name would imply, a number of our honoured
brothers, the physicians; but here we find that, whether we observe
Presidents or any other Officers, the influence exerted by the
apprentice system continues; and that, in _almost_ everything surgical,
the _best possible_ individual is an apprentice who has attained his
first position without any public competition. Can any one be surprised
that the published transactions of this society are not of a higher
character. We hope and believe that the point of the wedge is already
inserted, which will, at no distant period, rend asunder this system,
which we shall not trust ourselves by attempting to characterize
farther. But there are points in connection with the interests of
science and of Abernethy which require yet to be noticed.

We need scarcely observe that it would be very desirable that the
interests of science should be entrusted to those who had shown most
assiduity or talent in the cultivation of them; that if operative
surgery be really, as a whole, a series of facts exemplifying the
defects of a science—that whilst every pains should be taken that what
is necessary should be done thoroughly well—all factitious inducement
to multiply their number should be avoided, and especially any which
tended to increase emolument commensurately with their multiplication.

That as operations (with some few exceptions) merely minister to
effects, their real bearings on disease can only be estimated by
knowing the _ultimate result_; and that, in order to this effect,
returns of all operations should be kept, with full accounts of the
cases; the addresses of the patients should also be taken, and such
means as were obvious and practicable employed to obtain the _ultimate
result_ of the case.

Another point which should be attended to in hospitals, is an accurate
notation and return of all cases whatever; so that we might obtain from
statistical records whatever light they might be capable of affording
in aid of the prosecution of a definite science. In this return, a full
history, and _all_ the phenomena of the case, which are known to have
an influence on the Body, should be accurately noted, and in tabular
forms convenient for reference.

The defects of the hospitals in this respect are too well known to
require comment; and we think the profession indebted to Dr. Webster
for the exertions he has made to draw attention to this subject.
In no respect are the hospitals more defective than as regards the
division of labour[75]. To supply the requisitions of a yet dawning
science, there is too much confided to one surgeon; for, at present,
the practical administration and the scientific investigation should be
confided to the same hand. If more be entrusted to one man than can be
performed without great labour, and the greater labour be voluntary, we
shall have little chance of obtaining that full and accurate notation
of facts which all cases furnish more or less the means of obtaining,
and without which the evolution of the maximum of human ability is
absolutely impossible. It seems to us also an imperative duty to avail
ourselves of the experience afforded by the history of other sciences,
in the cultivation of our own.

All sciences have been in as bad a condition as medicine and surgery,
or worse. All sciences have progressed immediately that they were
investigated on a rational plan—a plan, which, simply stated, is
little more than the bringing together _all the facts_ that can be
perceived to bear any relation to the inquiry, and reasoning on them
according to _well-established_ and necessary conditions. If this be
the case, and this plan have never been applied to the investigation
of medical science, we know not how those who are placed in positions
which supply the necessary means can be excused; or how we can halt
in condemning the system under which such a flagitious neglect of
the claims of science and mankind is exemplified. It is true, when
we arrive at the acmé of our convictions of the effects of such a
system, our reflections remind us that such things are “permitted,”
and that ultimately they will work for good; that Man is not destined
to interfere with the ultimate plan and designs of Providence, however
he may be allowed to place his intellect under the direction of a
responsible volition, and to discover the path to the temple of truth,
only after having fruitlessly threaded the mazes of error.

[Footnote 75: We are glad to see that there has at length arisen a
desire, at least in a degree, to correct this evil.]

“Quanto quisque sibi plura negaverit
Ab Dis plura feret.”

We believe that there is no greater fallacy than that which supposes
that private advantage can be promoted at the expense of the public
good. We are very well disposed to believe that selfish people are the
very worst caterers for the real interests of the idol they worship.
The more we consider the Hospital system, the more reason shall we find
to distrust it; and we by no means exclude that very point wherein it
is supposed to be most successful—namely, in securing the pecuniary
advantage of those whose interests it is supposed to serve.

Of the apprentices, we shall say little more than to express our belief
that many of them have lived to obtain the conviction that they would
have done much better had they not been fed by hopes that were never
realized. All apprentices cannot, of course, be surgeons. Again, if,
in the course of a century, a solitary instance or two should occur
of the success of an unapprenticed candidate, they not unnaturally
feel it as an injustice in thus being deprived of that, the especial
eligibility to which was a plea for the exaction of a large apprentice
fee. But to the surgeons themselves, it seems to us that the system is
far from realizing the benefits that its manifold evils are supposed
to secure. The adage that “curses, like chickens, come home to roost,”
is far from inapplicable. After all, many of the hospital surgeons are
little known; and the public inference with regard to men invested with
such splendid opportunities of distinguishing themselves, is not very
flattering. Mr. Abernethy, so far from benefiting from the “System,”
appears to us to have suffered from it in every way.

His talents, both natural and acquired, would have given him every
thing to hope and nothing to fear from the severest competition;
whilst the positive effects of the system were such as to deprive him
of what was justly his due, and to embitter a retirement which in
the barest justice should have been graced by every thing that could
add to his peace, his honour, or his happiness, from the Institution
whose character he had exalted and maintained, and whose school he had

But let us look at the facts. The system which pronounces that there
shall be three surgeons to attend to some 500 or 600 patients (_for
the purposes of science_—the next thing to an impossibility), kept
Abernethy twenty-eight years an assistant surgeon. During this time he
was filling the hospital with students, to the amount of sums varying
from £2,000 to £3,000 a year, of which, in the said twenty-eight years,
he never received one farthing.

He saw, from time to time, many men, of whose capacities we know
he had the highest opinion, shut out from the hospital by the mere
circumstance of their not having been apprentices; and two of these
were the late Professor Macartney, of Dublin, and the present
distinguished Professor of Comparative Anatomy, Professor Owen. And
here we must pause to record one of our numerous obligations to the
perceptivity and justice of Abernethy. We have formerly observed
that, at the very commencement of life, he had been accustomed
to inculcate the importance of studying comparative anatomy and
physiology, in order to obtain clear views of the functions of Man;
but all arrangements made with this view, from the time of Mr. Hunter
onwards, though varying in degree, were still inefficient. It was next
to an impossibility to combine an availing pursuit of a science which
involves an inquiry into the structure and functions of the whole
animal kingdom, with the daily exigencies of an anxious profession.

When Mr. Owen had completed his education, his thoughts were directed
to a Surgeoncy in the navy, as combining a professional appointment
with the possibility of pursuing, with increased opportunities of
observation, his favorite study. Fortunately for science, he went to
Abernethy, who requested him to pause. He said, “You know the Hospital
will not have any but apprentices. Macartney left on that account.
Stay,” said he, “and allow me to think the matter over.” This resulted
in his proposing to the Council of the College of Surgeons that there
should be a _permanent_ Professor of Comparative Anatomy, and that the
appointment should be given to Mr. Owen.

This is among the many proofs of Abernethy’s perception of character.
Mr. Owen had dissected for lecture; and Abernethy saw, or thought he
saw, a peculiar aptitude for more general and enlarged anatomical
investigation. The whole world now knows how nobly the Professor
has justified the hopes of his talented master. It would be out of
place for us to attempt a compliment to a man so distinguished in a
science, wherein the varied pursuits of a practical profession allow
us to be mere amateurs; neither do we wish to forget other gentlemen
who distinguish themselves in this branch of science; but we believe
that most competent judges allow that the celebrated Cuvier has not
left any one more fitted to appreciate his excellence, or who has
more contributed to extend that science of which the Baron was so
distinguished a leader, than Professor Owen.

There is one incident, however, in the Professor’s labours which,
for our own purposes, we must relate; because we shall have to refer
to it in our humble exhortation to the public and the profession to
believe in the practicability of raising Medicine and Surgery into a
definite science. The incident shows what may be done by that mode of
investigation which is the still delayed desideratum in medicine and
surgery—namely, the _most comprehensive_ record of facts, and the
study of their _minutest relations_. Professor Cuvier was the first to
impress, in a special manner, that those beautiful relations in the
structure of animals, so many of which are even popularly familiar,
extended throughout the animal; so that if any one part, however
apparently subordinate, were changed, so accurate were the adaptations
in Nature, that all parts underwent some corresponding modification; so
that diversity of structure in parts, more or less affected the whole.

The beautiful result of all this is, that if these relations be once
thoroughly mastered, then any one part necessarily suggests, in general
terms, the nature of the animal to whom it belonged. Few instances,
however, so remarkable as the one we are about to mention, could have
been anticipated.

A seafaring man brought a piece of bone, about three or four inches in
length, as he said, from New Zealand, and offered it for sale at one or
two museums; amongst others, at the College of Surgeons. We shall not
here detain the reader by telling all that happened. These things are
often brought with intent to deceive, and with false allegations. Most
of those to whom the bone was submitted, dismissed it as worthless,
or manifested their incredulity. Amongst other guesses, some rather
eminent persons jocosely hinted that they had seen bones very like
it at the London Tavern; regarding it, in fact, as part of an old
marrow-bone, to which it bore, on a superficial view, some resemblance.
At length it was brought to Professor Owen, who, having looked at it
carefully, thought it right to investigate it more narrowly; and after
much consideration, he ventured to pronounce his opinion. This opinion,
from almost anybody else, would have been perhaps only laughed at;
for, in the first place, he said that the bone (big enough, as we have
seen, to suggest that it had belonged to an ox) had belonged to a bird.
But before people had had time to recover from their surprise or other
sensation created by this announcement, they were greeted by another
assertion, yet more startling—namely, that it had been a bird without

Now, we happen to know a good deal of this story; and that the
incredulity and doubt with which the opinion was received were too
great, for a time, even for the authority of Professor Owen to dispel.
But mark the truthfulness of a real science; contemplate the exquisite
beauty and accuracy of relation in nature! By and by, a whole skeleton
was brought over to this country, when the opinion of the Professor
was converted into an established fact. Nor was this all; there was
this appropriate symbol to perpetuate the triumph: that which had
appeared as the most startling feature of what had been scarcely better
received than as a wild conjecture, was so accurate in fact, as to
form the most appropriate name to the animal thus discovered[76].

It would be unjust to others to attribute Professor Owen’s appointment
exclusively to Abernethy: that, the state of things did not place
within his single power; but his penetration was the first to suggest,
and his weight most potential in securing, an appointment which various
circumstances, besides the merits of the individual, bring up in high
relief, as the best ever made by the London College of Surgeons.

To return to the Hospital System, as affecting Abernethy. He continued
to lecture, and the emoluments arising thence he of course enjoyed.
Until 1815, the whole of the hospital fees had been taken by the
surgeons in chief. These fees, in twenty-eight years (allowing
a reasonable deduction for those pupils who went to the school
independently of the inducement offered by the most attractive lecturer
ever known), must have amounted to an enormous sum. Having founded the
school, he became surgeon at about fifty years of age; and then retired
at sixty-two. On retiring, unpleasant discussions arose, which, with
others long antecedent, rendered his concluding associations with the
hospital scarcely more agreeable than they had been at the College of

The whole of Abernethy’s closing career gave him no reason to
rejoice at the Hospital System. The circumstances, though they
convey a lesson in the History of the Lives of Men of Genius, were,
abstractedly, extremely unimportant. They show that Abernethy, in
his retiring hours, whilst his reputation had become European, and
Transatlantic[77]—whilst hundreds were benefiting their fellow
creatures, more or less, according to their talents and opportunities,
in every part of the world—seems to have been surrounded by men
who, so far as we can see, were little disposed to grace his
retirement either with much sympathy, or even with reasonably generous
appreciation of all that he had done, either for Science in general, or
the Hospital in particular.

Instead of considering how they could best do honour to the waning
powers of one who had not only raised the reputation of St.
Bartholomew’s Hospital to a point it had never before attained, who
had founded a school there, constituting the largest single Hospital
Class in London, and who was leaving the inheritance of a rich annual
harvest to his successors,—the time was occupied in discussing whether
he could resign the surgeoncy without resigning the lectureship;
whether, on paying a hundred guineas, which there seemed no difficulty
in receiving, he could become a Governor whilst still an officer; and
then, whether his being a Lecturer without retaining the surgeoncy
did not so constitute him. These, and similar questions scarcely more
important, were the source of considerable annoyance.

In former editions, we were obliged to discuss some of these matters
more at large than is now necessary; because, amongst the individuals
associated in the transactions of the period, there was one to whom
Mr. Abernethy had been of especial service; but in regard to whom he
had been much misrepresented. Further, this had taken place in our own
hearing, in whose recollection all the facts were perfectly fresh,
but who were, at that time, without the documents which are now in
our possession. We accordingly sought to obtain whatever documents
there were from the source most likely to test the correctness of our
recollection; when a note was written which, as we now learn, quite
unintentionally conveyed the idea, or at least was susceptible of the
construction, that a disinclination to make any communication on the
subject proceeded from a desire to withhold something unfavourable to
Mr. Abernethy. This determined us on discussing the matter, so far as
was necessary to rebut such interpretation. And it was fortunate we
did so; for it very soon appeared, not only that such an impression
had been produced, but that “gossip,” with its usual aptitude for
invention, had soon supplied the myth thus supposed to have been
charitably withheld.

It was not very long after the publication of these Memoirs, that
we learned, in a conversation with a highly distinguished member of
the profession, that he had been led to entertain the impression to
which we have alluded. Here we had, of course, an opportunity of
correcting the error; but it obviously became a subject of very serious
consideration, what must be done in dealing with this matter, and
other matters arising out of it, in a subsequent edition. To treat
the affair seriously, would have involved a reference to documents in
our possession which, though highly honorable to Mr. Abernethy, would
have been of no general interest, whilst they would have involved
details disagreeable to several persons. We therefore, after much
consideration, resolved on endeavouring to see whether it was not
possible to quash a tedious and painful discussion, and at the same
time to obtain, of course, all that was necessary to the memory of Mr.

The following letter, and the reply, will, we think, sufficiently
develop the very difficult and disagreeable position in which we were
placed; our sole object being, so far as it was possible, to avoid
repeating or enlarging a discussion which we had learned would have
given pain to certain parties. The concluding paragraph has been
omitted, as being unnecessary to the point more immediately under

“3, The Court Yard, Albany,
“July 17th, 1856.


“For reasons which may be gathered from this note, I think it
proper to inform you that I am preparing another edition of the
Memoirs of Abernethy. Impressions have been conveyed to certain
persons, that the reasons on which you grounded your disinclination
to make any communication in relation to your differences with
Abernethy, were the desire you professed to withhold something
which involved imputations unfavourable to him. Further, a sort
of Body has been given to these vague impressions by inferences
which the documentary and other evidence at my disposal enable me
to disprove. In one quarter, the circumstances are so strongly
suggestive as to the sources whence the erroneous impressions were
derived, that it is impossible to leave that portion of the Memoirs
which treats of your differences with Abernethy as it at present
stands, without the risk of injustice. It is regarded as necessary
that you should either recognize or ignore the inferences which
(whether correctly or not I will not presume in this place to
determine) have certainly been formed on your supposed authority.
The justice of such a course is sufficiently obvious. I need
scarcely say, it is immaterial to me what course is taken. If I
am obliged to enter into the discussion of the subject, I shall
take the opportunity of defending myself from the remarks that
have been made upon me, and of showing what I did say, as well as
what I might have said. These remarks are less excusable from it
being known to me that a letter of mine to a third party was by my
express permission read to you, in which was stated my willingness
to alter or modify any passage which might have offended your
feelings, provided only that such alteration involved no injustice
to Mr. Abernethy. The (as I think) ill-advised rejection of the
offer, coupled with the intimation, long after, which was given
to Mr. Longman by a friend of yours, that certain papers would be
forthcoming, provided only that certain passages relating to Mr.
Stanley were suppressed, will involve a discussion in which I
shall now be very unreserved; but which, I fear, will be scarcely
less disagreeable to you than painful to myself. If you ignore the
imputations to which I have referred, it seems to me that the whole
discussion may be quashed by your simply writing me a note, in
which you state as the reason for your not making any communication
to me your dislike to revive the recollection of differences with
one whose memory you will always regard with respect, gratitude,
and affection, or whatever other terms your feelings may justify,
or the claims of Mr. Abernethy require.

* * * * *

* * * * *

“I am, Sir,
“Your obedient servant,

The following is Mr. Stanley’s reply:

“Brook Street, July 18th.


“Upon the subject of your communication to me, I can only say, that
I have no information to give; for I am not in possession of any
document relating to it; and so many years have elapsed since the
occurrences to which you refer, that I could not trust my memory
for the accuracy of any statement, if I were disposed to make it.
You will therefore perceive that there exists no foundation for the
supposition that ‘I desire to withhold something which involved
imputations unfavourable to Mr. Abernethy,’ or that any other
feelings than those of the utmost respect for the memory of Mr.
Abernethy have existed in my mind.

“I am, sir,
“Your obedient servant,


We here conclude this subject.

A somewhat amusing illustration of one feature of the hospital system
occurred about this time. Sir Astley Cooper had, without the smallest
intention to give offence, made some observation on the somewhat too
free use of Mercury at that period in the Borough Hospitals. His
observations having been misunderstood or misrepresented, he took
occasion to remove any idea of intentional offence, by addressing
the class. Among other things, he is reported to have said: “Why,
gentlemen, was it likely that I should say any thing unkind towards
these gentlemen? Is not Mr. Green my godson, Mr. Tyrrell my nephew, Mr.
Travers my apprentice” (the three surgeons of St. Thomas’s Hospital),
“Mr. Key my nephew, Mr. Cooper my nephew?” (surgeons of Guy’s)[78].

This was very _naïve_, and is an illustration of the value of evidence
in proof of facts having no necessary connection with those it was
intended to establish.

It is difficult to conceive any one more disinterested than Mr.
Abernethy had been in relation to the surgeoncy of the hospital, from
the moment at which he was appointed to the hour of his resignation.
Although he had waited twenty-eight years as assistant, and not
participated in one farthing of the large sums accruing from his
reputation in hospital pupil fees—although, too, he had a large
family,—yet, so far was he from wishing to indemnify himself for
this long exclusion from office by a lengthened tenure of it, that
he at once announced his opinion as to the expediency of earlier
resignations of the surgeoncies, and his intention of acting on it when
he should have attained his sixtieth year. His reasons were liberal and
judicious. Amongst others, he said that he had “often witnessed the
evils resulting from men retaining the office of surgeons to hospitals
when the infirmities of age prevented them from performing their
duties in an efficient manner. That, at sixty, he thought they should
resign in favour of the juniors,” &c.; thus contemplating a tenure of
only ten years. Again, he who had founded a school from such small
beginnings as could be accommodated in a private house in an obscure
neighbourhood (Bartholomew Close), taken for that purpose—who had
so increased it, that a theatre was built within the hospital—this
again pulled down and rebuilt of enlarged dimensions to receive his
increasing audiences—having, too, some time previously made over his
museum to the hospital, in trust for the use of the school,—required
that his only son (should he _prove competent in the opinion of the
medical officers_) should in due time—Do what? Succeed him? No; but be
admitted to a _share_ in the lectures.

Indeed, Mr. Abernethy’s closing career at the hospital gave him no
great reason to rejoice at the “hospital system.” Men, who could see
nothing in leaving very much more important situations to an indefinite
succession of apprentices, cavilled at a prospective lectureship for
his only son; whilst his lectures were delivered over to gentlemen—one
of whom had, from an early period, ridiculed, as he said, the opinions
which he taught as—and which we now know to have been—John Hunter’s;
and another, with whom there had been of late several not very pleasing

This was necessarily a result of the “hospital system;” a system that
gave a still more melancholy and fatal close to the labours of John
Hunter, whose death took place suddenly in the Board-room of St.
George’s Hospital, whilst resisting an interference with a privilege
which his love of science rendered valuable to him, and which it was
for the interests of science that he should enjoy; but, mournful as
these results are, and many others that might be added, still, if we
found that the system worked well for science, we might rest satisfied;
but is it so? What advances have the hospital surgeons of London,
_under the apprentice system_, made in the science of surgery? Let
those answer the question who are desirous of maintaining this system.
For our own parts, the retrospect seems to show “the system” in a more
striking manner than any thing we have yet stated. John Hunter, that
_primus inter omnes_, was no hospital apprentice; he migrated from St.
Bartholomew’s, where the rule was too exclusive to give him a chance,
to St. George’s, where he obtained admittance; St. Bartholomew’s
preserved “the system,” and lost Hunter.

Abernethy was an apprentice, truly; but all those glorious labours
which shed such a lustre on his profession, and such a benefit
on mankind, were completed long before he became surgeon to St.
Bartholomew’s Hospital; and it is material to repeat that at that time
the assistant surgeons, with the exceptions already stated, had nothing
to do. In casting our eyes over the retrospect of years, one honoured
name attracts our notice, in connection with a real advance in the
knowledge of the functions of nerves. We allude to Sir Charles Bell.
But here again “the system” is unfortunate; for Sir Charles was never
a hospital apprentice at all, and only succeeded to a post in a London
hospital after an open canvass in an institution in which the narrow
portal of the apprentice system is unrecognized.

We might have traced the effects of the apprentice system into the
more covert sites of its operations, as exemplified in the abortive
or mischievous legislation observed at different times in the College
of Surgeons of London; or have extended the catalogue we formerly
exposed as taking place in the Royal Med. and Chir. Society up to the
influence—proh pudor!—that it is allowed to exert in the Councils
of the Royal Society; but our so doing here would have led us into
discussions which are irrelevant or unnecessary to our present objects.
In the meantime, it is useful to remark that there are two sides to all
questions. If, in our corporate bodies, we see the prurient appetencies
of trade usurping the place of the lofty aspirations of science,—if we
see this carried to the extent of men allowing themselves to receive
money without rendering any intelligible account of its amount,—let
us not forget that there is a Public—aye, and a Profession too—which
calmly allows such things.

Let us also reflect on those numerous instances, in human affairs,
of things being only accomplished when there is a real necessity
for them; and, again, whether that necessity for a higher and purer
administration of corporate privileges and scientific distinctions
may not alone reside in a higher and purer moral standard on the
part of the public and the profession. Those who, in a worldly sense,
suffer from the system, have at least the consolation that they are
not obliged to participate in the administration of that which they
disapprove; and that the losses they so sustain are perhaps necessary
tests of their having achieved proper motives. No better proof of the
sincerity and earnestness of our love of science can be afforded us,
than a patient and thoughtful cultivation of it, independently of
patronage, position, or other auxiliaries, which too often mask from
us the true objects of research, sully the purity of mind by mixtures
of questionable motive, or mislead us from the temple of truth to the
altar of a fugitive and fallacious ambition. There are indeed signs of
a “_Delenda est Carthago_.” As we have said, the point of the wedge is
inserted, and a very little extension of public information will at no
distant period drive it home.

In the meantime, Medical Science, instead of being in a position to
receive every quackery as a means of demonstrating the superior beauty
of truth, by placing it in contrast with error, is obliged to regard
any absurdity, however gross, as one of the hydra-headed fallacies
through which we are to evolve what is true, only by the circuitous
plan of exhausting the resources of hypothesis and conjecture: whilst
sweeping epidemics, which, wholesomely regarded, should be looked on
reverently as besoms of destruction, are hailed by the observant as
melancholy, but necessary, impulses, to drive us to the adoption of
measures, to which our capital of common sense is not sufficient to
induce us to listen.

Neither are the old hospitals the only parts of a defective system.
There is no hospital in London that, even yet, has any country
establishment for convalescents; whilst of two of those more recently
established, one is built over a church-yard; and the other, intended
only for the relief of decarbonizing organs, is placed in the immediate
neighbourhood of the most smoky metropolis in Europe. Both, therefore,
instead of standing out as the most distinguished illustrations of the
laws of sanitary and physiological science, being, on the contrary,
emphatic examples of their violation.

We are unwilling to conclude this chapter without observing that,
notwithstanding the coldness and discussions which threw somewhat of
melancholy and shade over Abernethy’s retiring days, thus presenting
an unwelcome contrast with the more palmy periods of his career—a
contrast from which it might have been hoped his conscientious
retirement might have spared him,—we yet see how appropriate a
preparation it might have been for a transition from the exciting, and
adulatory, atmosphere which surrounds a popular and scientific teacher,
as compared with the calmness and peace of a life in the country. He
was now no more to enter the Hospital Square, where we have so often
seen him mobbed, as it were, by the crowding and expectant pupils;
no more to be daily addressing audiences who never seemed to tire
even with repetitions of that with which many were already familiar;
nor any more to see, as occasional visitors, men grown grey in the
successful practice of his early lessons, bringing their sons to the
same school, and both listening with equal pleasure. There is no
doubt that, contrasted with all this, retirement was a great, though
now probably a welcome, change. Eminent men unintentionally exert an
influence which is not without its evils; and we shall see that of this
he was fully aware. Assentation is too much the order of the day. The
multitude appear to agree. The few who differ, are apt to be cautious
or reserved. If a man is too sensible to be fed with such garbage as
direct flattery, there are always tricksters or tacticians, who have a
thousand ways of paying homage without detection.

Then, again, those who really admire a man, and are honest,—keep
aloof, and shrink from an association with those whom they know, or
believe, to be parasites. It thus happens that there are men to whom so
few venture to be honest, that the world may present little better than
a practical lie. It is a mercy then, when a man’s sun is setting, that
he be blessed with a little twilight of truth.

There are, in the moral and intellectual constitution, as well as in
the physical endowments of Man, beneficent powers of adaptation, which
let us gently down to contrasts, which, too sudden, might be painful or

There is, however, this difference—the external senses have intrinsic
powers of adaptation so ready, and perfect, as scarcely to be taken by
surprise by any natural transition. The moral and intellectual powers
do not appear to possess this electric activity; but require slower
gradations of impression, which, by some law in the progress of human
affairs, are (as the rule) mercifully supplied.

In his own lessons, whenever he met with any _apparent_ imperfection,
and wished to impress its _real_ beauty of adaptation, Abernethy was
very fond of what he termed his argumentum ex absurdo. He would suppose
various other arrangements, and point out in succession their unfitness
for the purposes required. Tried in the same manner, we can see nothing
better than that which really happened.

If Abernethy met with coldness where he expected warmth—and
dispute and discussion where he might have calculated on grateful
concession,—how well-fitted must have been that reverence and
affection which longingly awaited his retirement at home. If the
greatest worldly success, in that occupation in which he had always
felt most pleasure, was still not without its dark lights—shadowing
forth what the world really is,—what could he have had better to
concentrate his views on those substantial sources of comfort, of which
he had long believed and estimated the value, and on which he was
contented to repose. It had always been a favourite expression of his,
when in any doubt or difficulty: “Well, I will consult my pillow, and
we shall see.” We believe that pillow seldom flattered.

[Footnote 76: It was accordingly named the Apteryx, or wingless, from
the Greek Alpha and Pterux.]

[Footnote 77: We have derived great pleasure from our correspondence,
during some years, with Professor Ethelbert Dudley, of Lexington,
Kentucky, and from the evidence it affords of Abernethy’s principles
having been recognized, and practised with great success, by one
of the most distinguished surgeons and successful operators in the
Western World. Professor E. Dudley, himself a distinguished surgeon and
lecturer, and a man who unites with an extremely clear and vivacious
perceptivity, a most untiring zeal in his profession, is the nephew
of the celebrated B. Dudley, whose fame extends through the great
Mississippi Valley. This gentleman, now advanced in years, was an
early pupil of Abernethy, of whom he is a great admirer. He is a
remarkably successful operator, and, during his more active period,
was sometimes sent for several hundred miles. He is said to have
performed lithotomy 200 times, with the loss of only six cases. His
unusual success in operations he attributes not so much to any peculiar
dexterity as to the manner in which he conducts the preparatory and
subsequent portions of the Constitutional treatment of his cases. He
seems also to have practised some other of Abernethy’s habits: the most
careful consideration of the pecuniary circumstances of his patients,
interspersed with not a few examples of almost unexampled generosity.]

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Hoc autem de quo nunc agimus id ipsum est quod utile

“Trace Science, then, with Modesty thy guide;
First, strip off all her equipage of pride;
Deduct what is but vanity of dress,
Or learning’s luxury, or idleness,
Or tricks to show the stretch of human brain,
Mere curious pleasure, or ingenious pain.”

Lecturing after a fashion is easy enough; _teaching_ is a very
different affair. The one requires little more than good information,
some confidence, and a _copia verborum_; the other establishes
several additional requisitions. These requisitions, when rendered
comparatively easy by nature, are seldom perfectly matured without art
and careful study. The transmission of ideas from one mind to another,
in a simple, unequivocal form, is not always easy; but, in teaching,
the object is not merely to convey the idea, but to give a lively
and lasting impression—something that should not merely cause the
retention of the image, but in such connection as to excite another
process, “thought.”

There was no peculiarity in Abernethy more striking than the power he
possessed of communicating his ideas, and of sustaining the interest
of the subject on which he spoke. For this there is no doubt he was
greatly indebted to natural talent; but it is equally clear that he had
cultivated it with much care. His ability as a lecturer was, we think,
unique. We never saw his like before: we hardly dare hope we shall

There is no doubt that a great part of his success depended on a
facility of giving that variety of expression, and that versatility
of manner, which falls within the province of what we must call
dramatic; but then it was of the very highest description, in that it
was perfectly natural. It was of that kind which we sometimes find in
an actor, and which conveys the impression that he is speaking his
own sentiments, rather than those of the author. It is a species of
talent which dies with its possessor, and cannot, we think, be conveyed
by description. Still there were many things in Abernethy that were
observable, and such as could hardly have been acquired without study.

If we examine any lecturer’s style, and ask ourselves what is his
fault, we shall find very few in whom we cannot detect one or more.
When we do this, and then reflect on Abernethy, we are astonished
to find how many he avoided. We shall endeavour to make this as
intelligible as we can, by citing some of the points which our
attention to different lecturers have suggested.

“Simplicity” has struck us as a feature which, in some sense or
other, is very commonly defective. Simplicity appears so important,
that perhaps, by not a very illegitimate extension of its meaning, it
might be made to include almost all the requisitions of this mode of
teaching. Let us think of it in relation to language and illustration.
In all sciences, the _facts_ are simple; the laws are yet _more
so_; increasing knowledge tends to impress on us an ever-increasing
and comprehensive simplicity. In explaining simple things, no doubt
language should be simple too. If we employ language unnecessarily
technical, we use symbols to which the learner is unaccustomed.
He has not to learn the facts _only_; but he has the _additional
labour_ of something allied to learning it in a foreign language. The
_unnecessary_ use of technicalities should then surely be avoided.
Abernethy was obliged to use them, because there were often no other
terms; but he always avoided any needless multiplication of them. When
they were difficult or objectionable, he tried some manœuvre to lighten
the repulsiveness of them.

There are many muscles in the neck with long names, and which are
generally given with important parts of surgical anatomy. Here he used
to chat a little; he called them the _little_ muscles with the _long_
names; but he would add, that, after all, they were the best-named
muscles in the body, because their names expressed their attachments.
This gave him an excuse for referring to what he had just described,
in the form of a narrative, rather than a dry repetition. Then, with
regard to one muscle, that he wished particularly to impress, the name
of which was longer than any of the others, he used to point it out as
a striking feature in all statues; and then, repeating its attachments,
and pointing to the sites which they occupied, say it was impossible to
do so without having the image of the muscle before us.

In other parts of the Lectures, he would accompany the technical name
by the popular one. Thus he would speak of the pancreas, or sweetbread;
cartilage, or gristle. Few people are aware how many difficulties are
smoothed by such simple manœuvres. Nothing interests people so much as
giving anything _positive_. We think it not improbable that many a man
has heard a lecture, in which animals have been described with whose
habits he had been perfectly familiar, without having recognized his
familiar acquaintances in the disguise afforded by a voluminous Greek
compound. Abernethy seemed always to lecture, not so much as if he was
telling us what he _knew_, as that which _we_ did _not_ know. There was
an absence of all display of any kind whatever.

To hear some lecturers, one would almost think that they adopted the
definition of language which is reported of Talleyrand—that it was
intended to conceal our ideas. Some make simple things very much
otherwise by the mode of explaining them. This reminds us of a very
worthy country clergyman, in the west of England, who, happening to
illustrate something in his sermon by reference to the qualities of
pitch, thought he should help his rustic congregation by enlarging a
little on the qualities of that mineral. He accordingly commenced by
saying, “Now, dear brethren, pitch is a bituminous substance:” rather a
difficult beginning, we should think, to have brought to a successful

Sometimes we have heard a very unnecessary catalogue of technicalities
joined with several propositions in one sentence. It is hardly to
be imagined how this increases the difficulty to a beginner; whilst
it impresses the excellence of that simplicity and clearness which
were so charming in Abernethy. We give an example of this defect. The
lecturer is describing the continuation of the cuticle over the eyes
of the crustacea, as lobsters, &c.: “The epidermis (the cuticle) in
the compound eyes of the crustacea passes transparent and homogeneous
over the external surface of the thick layer of the prismatic corneæ,
which are here, as in insects, generally hexagonal, but sometimes
quadrangular; and to the internal ends of the prismatic corneæ are
applied the broad bases of the hard, tapering, transparent lenses,
which have their internal truncated apices directed to the retinal
expansions of the numerous optic nerves.”

The high respect we entertain for the lecturer here alluded to,
withholds us from attempting to supply a more homely version of the
foregoing passage. But what an idea this must give to a student who
reads it in “the outlines” of a science of which he is about to
commence the study. There is nothing whatever difficult in the ideas
themselves; but what a bristling _chevaux-de-frise_ of hard words,
what a phalanx of propositions! We fear we should never arrive at the
knowledge of many of those beautiful adaptations which all animals
exemplify, if we had to approach them by such a forbidding pathway.

As contrasted with simple facts thus obscured by an unnecessary
complexity of expression, we may see in Abernethy how a very
comprehensive proposition may be very simply expressed. Take almost the
first sentence in his Surgical Lectures, the germ, as it were, of a
new science: “Now I say that local disease, injury, or irritation, may
affect the whole system; and conversely, that disturbance of the whole
system may affect any part.”

We have sometimes thought that lecturers who have had several desirable
qualifications have materially diminished the attraction of them by
faults which we hardly know how to designate by a better term than
vulgarity, ill-breeding, or _gaucherie_. Now Abernethy had, in the
first place, that most difficult thing to acquire, the appearance of
_perfect ease, without_ the slightest _presumption_. Some lecturers
appear painfully “in company;” others have a self-complacent
assurance, that conveys an unfavourable impression to most well-bred
people. Abernethy had a calm, quiet sort of ease, with that expression
of thought which betokened respect for his task and his audience, with
just enough of effort only, to show that his mind was in his business.

He had no offensive tricks. We have known lecturers who never began
without making faces; others who intersperse the lecture with unseemly
gesticulations. Some, on the most trivial occasion, as referring to
a diagram, are constantly turning their backs _completely_ to the
audience. This is, we know, disagreeable to many people, and, unless a
lecturer is very clear and articulate, occasionally renders his words
not distinctly audible. Even in explaining diagrams, it is seldom
necessary to turn quite round; the smallest inclination towards the
audience satisfies the requisitions of good breeding, reminds them
agreeably of a respect with which they never fail to be pleased, and of
the lecturer’s self-possession.

There are, indeed, occasions when the lecturer had better turn a
little aside. Not long ago, we heard a very sensible lecturer, and a
very estimable man, produce an effect which was rather ludicrous—a
very inconvenient impression when not intended. He had been stating,
very clearly, some important facts, and he then observed: “The great
importance of these facts I will now proceed to explain to you;” when
he immediately began to apply the pocket-handkerchief he had in his
hand most elaborately to his nose, still fronting the audience. It had
the most ridiculous effect, and followed so closely on the preceding
remark, as to suggest to the humorously inclined that it was part of
the proposed explanation.

Some think it excusable to cast their eyes upwards, with an expression
of intense thought, or even to carry their hands to their heads or
forehead for the same purpose. But this conveys a painful feeling to
the audience, whose attention is apt to be diverted from the subject by
sympathy with the apparent embarrassment of the lecturer. Sometimes it
conveys the impression of affectation, which of course is one form of

Abernethy was remarkably free from anything of the kind. The
expression of his countenance was, in the highest degree, clear,
penetrative, and intellectual; and his long, but not neglected,
powdered hair, which covered both ears, gave altogether a philosophic
calmness to his whole expression that was peculiarly pleasing. Then
came a sort of little smile, which mantled over the whole face, and
lighted it up with something which we cannot define, but which seemed a
compound of mirth, archness, and benevolence.

The adjustment of the quantity of matter to the time employed in
discussing it, is an important point in teaching. A lecture too _full_,
is as objectionable as a lecture _too long_. If the matter is spread
too thinly, the lecture is bald and uninteresting, and apt to fall
short of representing any integral division of a subject; if it be too
thick, it is worse, for then all is confused and difficult. A man’s
brain is like a box packed in a hurry; when all is done, you neither
know what you have got, nor what you have forgotten.

Here again Abernethy was in general very happy. Various circumstances
would sometimes, indeed, in the Anatomical Course, oblige him to put
more into one lecture than was usual; but he had always, in such a
case, some little manœuvre to sustain the attention of his audience.
No man was ever a more perfect master of the _ars est celare artem_.
Everything he did had its object, every joke or anecdote its particular
errand, which was in general most effectively fulfilled.

The various ways in which Abernethy managed to lighten up the general
lecture, or to illustrate single points, can hardly be conveyed by
selection of particular examples. There was a sort of running metaphor
in his language, which, aided by a certain quaintness of manner, made
common things go very amusingly. Muscles which pursued the same course
to a certain point, were said to travel sociably together, and then to
“part company.” Blood-vessels and nerves had certain habits in their
mode of distribution contrasted in this way; arteries were said to
_creep_ along the sides or between muscles. Nerves, on the contrary,
were represented as penetrating their substance “_without ceremony_.”
Then he had always a ready sympathy with his audience. If a thing was
difficult, he would, as we have said, anticipate the feelings of the
student. This is always encouraging; because, when a student finds a
point difficult, if he is merely diffident, he is depressed; if he is
disposed to be lazy, he finds too good an excuse for it.

Abernethy’s illustrations were usually drawn from some source already
familiar; and if they were calculated to impress the fact, he was not
very scrupulous whence he drew them. This would sometimes lead him
into little trippings against refinement; but these were never wanton.
Everything had its object, from the most pathetic tale down to the
smallest joke. When the thing to be impressed was not so much single
facts or propositions, as a more continued series, he had an admirable
mode of pretending to con over the lecture in a manner which he would
first recommend students to do—something after this fashion: “Let me
see—what did he say?” “Well, first he told us that he should speak of
Matter in general; then he said something about the Laws of Matter,
of Inertia, &c. Well, I did not understand much of that; and I don’t
think he knew much about it himself;” and so on. There would now be a
general smile; the attention of the class would be thoroughly alive;
and then he would, in this “conning over,” bring forward the points
he most wished to impress of the whole lecture. A very striking proof
of how much power he had in this way, came out in a conversation I
had with Dr. Thomas Rees. This gentleman knew Abernethy well, and, in
kindly answering some inquiries I made of him, he spoke of his power
in lecturing. Amongst other things, he said: “The first lecture I ever
heard him give, impressed me very much; I thought it admirable. His
skill appeared so extraordinary! At the conclusion of the lecture,”
said Dr. Rees, “he proposed to the students to con over the lecture,
which he proceeded to do for them.” Dr. Rees then continued repeating
the heads of the lecture, and this after at least thirty, perhaps forty

Lecturers will sometimes endeavour to illustrate a point which is
difficult or obscure by something more difficult still, or something
borrowed from another branch of science. Sometimes the illustrations
are so lengthy, or intrinsically important, that a pupil forgets _what
principle_ it was that was _to be illustrated_. When we are desirous
of learning something about water or air, it is painful for a pupil
to be “reminded” of the “properties of angles,” which it is an even
chance he never knew. It is equally uncomfortable to many an audience,
in lectures on _other subjects_, to have the course of a cannon-ball,
which three pieces of string would sufficiently explain, for mere
purposes of illustration, charged with the “laws of projectiles,” the
“composition of forces,” &c. We are of course not thinking of learn_ed_
but learn_ing_ audiences. To the former, lectures are of no use; but
we allude to learners of mixed information and capacity; like young
men who have been residing with medical men in the country; who come
to a lecture for information, and who require to be interested, in
order that they may be instructed. Abernethy’s illustrations were
always in simple language. Rough ridden sometimes by a succession of
many-footed Greek compounds, the mind of a student loves to repose on
the refreshing simplicity of household phrases.

Abernethy had stories innumerable. Every case almost was given with the
interest of a tale; and every tale impressed some lesson, or taught
some relation in the structure, functions, or diseases of the body. We
will give one or two; but their effect lay in the admirable manner in
which they were related.

If he was telling anything at all humorous, it would be lighted up by
his half-shut, half-smiling, and habitually benevolent eye. Yet his eye
would easily assume the fire of indignation when he spoke of cruelty or
neglect, showing how really repulsive these things were to him. Then
his quiet, almost stealthy, but highly dramatic imitation of the manner
of some singular patient. His equally finished mode of expressing pain,
in the subdued tone of his voice; and then when something soothing or
comfortable had been successfully administered to a patient, his “Thank
you, sir, thank you, that is very comfortable,” was just enough always
to interest, and never to offend. Now and then he would sketch some
patient who had been as hasty as he himself was sometimes reported to
be. “Mr. Abernethy, I am come, sir, to consult you about a complaint
that has given me a great deal of trouble.” “Show me your tongue,
sir. Ah, I see your digestive organs are very wrong.” “I beg your
pardon, sir; there you are wrong yourself; I never was better in all my
life,” &c. All this, which is nothing in telling, was delivered in a
half-serious, half-Munden-like, humorous manner, and yet so subdued as
never to border on vulgarity or farce.

His mode of relating cases which involved some important principle,
showed how really interested he had been in them. A gentleman having
recovered from a very serious illness, after having failed a long time
in getting relief, was threatened, by the influence of the same causes,
with a return of his malady. “He thought,” said Abernethy, “that if he
did not drink deeply, he might eat like a glutton.” He lived in the
country, and Mr. Abernethy one day went and dined with him. “Well,”
said Mr. Abernethy, “I saw he was at his old tricks again; so, being
a merchant, I asked him what he would think of a man who, having been
thriving in business, had amassed a comfortable fortune, and then went
and risked it all in some imprudent speculation?” “Why,” said the
merchant, “I should think him a great ass.” “Nay, then, sir,” said
Abernethy, “thou art the man.”

On another occasion, a boy having suffered severely from disease of the
hip, Abernethy had enjoined his father to remove him from a situation
which he was unfitted to fill, and which, from the exertion it
required, would expose him to a dangerous recurrence of his complaint.
The father, however, put the boy back to his situation. One day,
Abernethy met both father and son in Chancery Lane, and he saw the
boy, who had a second time recovered, again limping in his walk. After
making the necessary inquiry—”Sir,” said he to the father, “did I not
warn you not to place your son in that situation again?” The father
admitted the fact. “Then, sir,” said Abernethy, “if that boy dies, I
shall be ready to say you are his murderer.” Sure enough, the boy had
another attack, and did die in a horrible condition.

This story, and others of a similar kind, were intended to impress
the paramount importance of keeping diseased parts, _and joints
especially_, in a state of _perfect repose_; and to prevent a
recurrence of mischief, by avoiding modes of life inappropriate to
constitutions which had exhibited a tendency to this serious class of

He was remarkably good on the mode of examining and detecting the
nature of accidents; as fractures and dislocations. In regard to the
latter, he had many very good stories, of which we will presently cite
a ludicrous example. He could, however, throw in pathos with admirable
skill when he desired it. The following lamentable case he used to tell
to an audience singularly silent. He is speaking of the course of a
large artery.

“Ah,” said he, “there is no saying too much on the importance of
recollecting the course of large arteries: but I will tell you a
case. There was an officer in the navy, and as brave a fellow as ever
stepped, who in a sea-fight received a severe wound in the shoulder,
which opened his axillary artery. He lost a large quantity of blood;
but the wound was staunched for the moment, and he was taken below. As
he was an officer, the surgeon, who saw he was wounded severely, was
about to attend him, before a seaman who had just been brought down.
But the officer, though evidently in great pain, said: ‘Attend to that
man, sir, if you please; I can wait.’ Well, his turn came; the surgeon
made up his mind that a large artery had been wounded; but, as there
was no bleeding, dressed the wound, and went on with his business. The
officer lay very faint and exhausted for some time, and at length began
to rally again, when the bleeding returned. The surgeon was immediately
called, and, not knowing where to find the artery, or what else to do,
told the officer he must amputate his arm at the shoulder joint. The
officer at once calmly submitted to this additional, but unnecessary
suffering; and, as the operator proceeded, asked if it would be long.
The surgeon replied that it would soon be over. The officer rejoined:
‘Sir, I thank God for it!’ But he never spake more.”

Amidst the death-like silence of the class, Abernethy calmly concluded:
“I hope you will never forget the course of the axillary artery.”

His position was always easy and natural—sometimes homely, perhaps.
In the Anatomical Lecture, he always stood, and either leant against
the wall, with his hands folded before him, or resting one hand on the
table, with the other perhaps in his pocket. In his Surgical Lecture,
he usually sat, and very generally with one leg resting on the other.

He was particularly happy in a kind of coziness, or friendliness of
manner, which seemed to identify him with his audience; as if we were
all about to investigate something interesting _together_, and not as
if we were going to be “Lectured at” at all. He spoke as if addressing
each individual, and his discourse, like a happy portrait, always
seemed to be looking you in the face. On very many accounts, the tone
and pitch of the voice, in lecturing, are important. First: That it may
not be inaudible; nor, on the contrary, too loud. The one of course
renders the whole useless; the other is apt to give an impression of
vulgarity. We recollect a gentleman who was about to deliver a lecture
in a theatre to which he was unaccustomed. He was advised to ascertain
the loudness required, and to place a friend in the most distant part,
to judge of its fitness; but he declined it as unnecessary. When he had
given the lecture, which was a very good one, on a very interesting
subject, he was much mortified in finding that he had been inaudible to
at least one half of the audience.

Abernethy was very successful in this respect. His voice seldom rose
above what we may term the conversational, either in pitch or tone;
it was, in general, pleasing in quality, and enlivened by a sort of
archness of expression. His loudest tone was never oppressive to those
nearest to him; his most subdued, audible everywhere. The _range_
of pitch was very limited; the expression of the eye, and a _slight
modulation_ of the voice being the means by which he infused through
the lecture an agreeable variety, or gave to particular sentiments
the requisite expression. There was nothing like declamation; even
quotations were seldom louder than would have been admissible in a
drawing-room. We have heard lecturers whose habitually declamatory tone
has been very disagreeable; and this seldom fails to be mischievous. A
declamatory tone tends to divert the attention, or to weary it when
properly directed. On almost every subject, it is sure to be the source
of occasional bathos, which now and then borders on the ridiculous.
Conceive a man, describing a curious animal in a diagram, saying,
“This part, to which I now direct my rod, is the point of the tail,”
in a sepulchral tone, and heavy cadence, as if he had said, “This
is the end of all things.” Another inconvenience often attending a
declamatory tone, as distinguished from the narrative or descriptive,
is the tendency it has to make a particular cadence. Sometimes we have
heard lecturers give to every other sentence a peculiar fall; and this
succession of rhythmical samenesses, if the lecturer be not otherwise
extremely able, sends people napping.

Another fault we observe in some lecturers is, a reiteration of
particular phrases. In description, it is not easy always to avoid
this; but it seldom occurred in any disagreeable degree in Abernethy.
We have heard some lecturers, in describing things, continually
reiterating such phrases as “We find,” “It is to be observed,” in such
quick and frequent succession, that people’s sides began to jog in
spite of them.

Provincial or national idiom, or other peculiarity, is by no means
uncommon, and generally more or less disagreeable, Abernethy was
particularly free from either. He could, in telling stories, slightly
imitate the tone and manner of the persons concerned; but it was always
touched in the lightest possible manner, and with the subdued colouring
and finish of a first-rate artist. His power of impressing facts, and
of rendering them simple and interesting by abundance and variety of
illustration, was very remarkable, and had the effect of imparting an
interest to the driest subject. In the first place, he had an agreeable
mode of sympathizing with the difficulty of the student. If he were
about to describe a bone or anything which he knew to be difficult,
he would adopt a tone more like that in which a man would teach it to
himself than describe it to others. For example, he would say, perhaps:
“Ah! this is a queer-looking bone; it has a very odd shape; but I
plainly perceive that one may divide it into two parts.” Then pointing
with a probe to the division he proposed, he would begin, not so much
to _describe_ as to _find_, as if for the first time, the various
parts of which he wished to teach the names and uses; the description
being a kind of running accompaniment to his tracing of the bone, and
in a tone as if half-talking to himself and half to the audience.

Every one feels the value of order, and clearness of arrangement.
Of Abernethy’s, we have already spoken generally: simplicity, and
impressing the more essential facts, were his main objects. He showed
very frequently his perception of the importance of order, and would
often methodize for the students. He knew very well that A B C was much
more easily remembered than Z K J; and he would sometimes humorously
contrast the difference between a man whose knowledge was well packed,
and one whose information was scattered and without arrangement. This
he usually did by supposing two students under examination. The scene
would not _tell_ upon paper; but it never failed to create a good deal
of mirth in the theatre, during which he would contrive to repeat the
facts he meant to impress, without the tedium of mere reiteration.

Various people have been more or less deeply impressed with different
parts of his lectures, most persons having their favourite passages. In
his anatomical course we were never more pleased than by his _general_
view of the structure of the body. He adopted on that occasion the
synthetical plan, and in imagination put the various parts together
which were to be afterwards taught analytically. In his surgical
course, the manner in which he illustrated the practical points, and
his own views in the “Eventful History of a Compound Fracture,” was, we
think, the most successful triumph, both as to matter and manner, which
we have ever witnessed.

An abundance of resource and manœuvres of the kind we have mentioned,
gave a great “liveliness” to his lecture, which _in its quiet form so
as not to divert or disturb_, is a great difficulty in lecturing.

We have heard an excellent lecturer whose only fault, we think, was
want of liveliness and variety. Few men could in other respects lecture
comparably to him. Nothing could surpass the quiet, polished manner
of this accomplished teacher. His voice, though not good, was by no
means unpleasing. His articulation elaborately distinct, and free from
all provincialism. His language invariably correct and appropriate;
the structure of his sentences strikingly grammatical; and they fell
in such an easy, though somewhat too rhythmical succession, as to be
at once graceful and melodious. His arrangement, always simple and
clear. Nothing was more striking than the deferential manner in which
he approached a philosophical subject. “I like ——,” said one who
had often heard him, “because he is always so gentlemanly. There is
nothing off-hand, as if he thought himself very clever, but a kind of
unaffected respect for himself and his audience, which obliges one to
pay attention to him, if it were only because you feel that a man of
education is speaking to you.”

What, it may be said, can such a man want? Why he wanted liveliness
and flexibility. His voice measured forth its gentlemanly way with
all the regularity of a surveying rod. Various and interesting as his
subjects were, and handled with consummate ability, he must certainly
have _taught_; yet we think he sent away many of his audience passive
recipients, as distinguished from persons _set on thinking_ what they
had heard “into their own.”

He performed his task like a good man and a scholar; but still it was
like a task after all. It was something like a scholar reading a book,
always excepting the beautifully clear illustrations for which his
subject gave him abundant opportunity. He wanted that animation and
interest in his subject by which a lecturer inoculates you with his own
enthusiasm. He was the most striking example in our experience of the
importance of liveliness and variety, and of making a lecture, however
well delivered, just that thing which we _cannot_ find in a book. The
life-like, the dramatic effect was wanting; and it was to this alone
that we can ascribe what we have not unfrequently observed in the midst
of a generally attentive audience, a few who were “nodding” their
assent to his propositions.

Now Abernethy’s manner was perfect in these respects. He had just got
the “cheerfully, not too fast” expression, that we sometimes see at
the head of a musical composition. His manner was so good, that it
is difficult to convey any idea of it. It was easy, without being
negligent; cheerful, without being excited; humorous, often witty,
without being vulgar; expeditious, without being in a bustle; and he
usually took care that you should learn _the thing_, before he gave the
_name of it_; and understand it, before he expatiated on the beauty or
perfection of its adaptation to the ends it seemed designed to serve.

He was particularly chaste in the manner in which he spoke of design,
or other of the Attributes so frequently observable in natural
arrangements. It is a great mistake, we think, and not without
something akin to vulgarity, to usher in any description of the
beauties of nature by a flourish of such trumpets as human epithets
form—mere notes of admiration. Nature speaks best for herself. The
mind is kept in a state of excitement by too frequent _feux de joies_
of this kind; the frequent recurrence of such terms as “curious!
strange! wonderful!” on subjects where all is wonderful, have a sort of
bathos in the ears of the judicious, while to the less critical they
produce a kind of disturbed atmosphere, which is unfavourable to the
calm operations of the intellect.

Abernethy was generally very careful in these matters. I give one
example. He is speaking of cartilage, or gristle, which covers the
ends of the bones where they form joints, and has explained its great
elasticity, the use of it in preventing jarring; and contrasted the
_springiness_ of youth with the easily jarred frame of age. “Well,”
he adds, “this cartilage is fibrous, and they say that the fibres are
arranged vertically; so that the body may be said to be supported on
‘_myriads of elastic columns_.'” That was the beauty by which he wished
to impress that which he had previously _taught_.

When marvellousness is too much excited, many say, “Ah, how clever
that gentleman is! what an interesting lecture! what a curious thing
that was he showed us!” But when you inquire what _principle_ or _law_
was intended to be illustrated, you find that the sensual or the
imaginative faculty has alone been excited, and has galloped off with
that which was intended for the intellect. If persons are examined as
to a particular point of the lecture, they are apt to say: “Well, that
is just what I wanted to know; would you explain it?”

It would seem that it is a great mistake to excite marvellousness
or our external senses very vividly, when we desire to concentrate
the intellectual faculties. That breathless silence, with eyes and
mouth open, that “_intenti que ora tenebant_” condition, excited by
marvellousness, is very well for the story of Æneas, or Robinson
Crusoe; but it is out of place, when we are endeavouring to augment our
intellectual possessions.

We require, in fact, a calmer atmosphere. The desire to interest and
hold the attention of our audience is so natural, that it is very apt
to escape one that this may be done _on terms not consistent_ with our
real object—the interesting the intellect; and this fault is perhaps,
of all, the worst; because it is never a greater failure than when it
appears to be successful. All other faults in lecturing, if serious, in
one respect tell their own tale in the thinning audience.

The learned author of the “Philosophy of Rhetoric” has observed that “A
discourse directed to the understanding will not admit of an address to
the passions, which, as it never fails to disturb the operation of the
intellectual faculty, must be regarded by every intelligent hearer as
foreign indeed, if not insidious.” He had before said, “that in such a
discourse you may borrow metaphor or comparison to illustrate it, but
not the bolder figures, prosopopœia and the like, which are intended
not to elucidate the subject, but to _create admiration_.”

“It is obvious,” he continues, “that either of the foregoing, far from
being subservient to the main design (to address the intellect), serves
only to distract the attention from it[67].”

This judicious writer, however, in the first sentence makes a
distinction, which requires, perhaps, to be received with some caution.

There is no discourse that is solely intellectual; the driest
mathematical proposition interests our _feelings_. The pleasure of
truth, what is that? Not merely intellectual, certainly. It is a
pleasure derived _from_ the intellect, no doubt; but it is a _feeling_
entirely distinct. So, in addresses to the passions, if they are
successful, the presiding influence of the intellect is very obvious;
this away, a discourse soon merges into bombast or fustian, a something
which neither impresses the feelings nor the passions as desired.

The true desideratum, as it appears to us, is accuracy of adjustment,
not separation. In intellectual operations, the feelings are to be
subservient to the accomplishment of the objects of the intellect. In
discourses, where the passions or feelings are most appealed to, or
most prominent, the intellect must still really guide, though it may
appear to follow.

Notwithstanding that so much of Abernethy’s lecturing was on anatomy,
and therefore necessarily addressed to the eye, yet he seldom offered
any _illustration_ to the external senses. He was always endeavouring
to impress the mechanical arrangement of parts, by reference to their
uses and surgical relations. Even in speaking of light, he would be
suggestive beyond the mere perception of sense. He used to say, of
refraction of light, when the refracting medium was, as it commonly
is, the denser body, “that the ray seems as if attracted”—a very
suggestive phrase to any one who has thought much on the subject of
light. It is a curious thing to observe how confused the ideas of many
people are on phenomena of light; and we are afraid that the cause is,
that the illustrations to the eye are given _too soon_. If people were
made to _understand_ by a simple illustration what they are about to
_see_, it is probable they would have much clearer ideas. The intellect
having gone before, the eye no longer diverts it from its office; and
the eye would then be merely _impressing_, by means of a physical
representation, an established idea.

“Suavis autem est et vehementer sæpe utilis jocus et facetiæ.”—CIC.

Abernethy’s humour was very peculiar; and though there was of course
something in the matter, there was a good deal more, as it appeared
to us, in the manner. The secret of humour, we apprehend, lies in the
juxtaposition, either expressed or implied, of incongruities, and it is
not easy to conceive anything humourous which does not involve these
conditions. We have sometimes thought there was just this difference in
the humour of Abernethy, as contrasted with that of Sidney Smith. In
Smith’s, there was something that, told by whom it might be, was always
ludicrous. Abernethy’s generally lay in the telling.

“The jest’s propriety lies in the ear
Of him who hears it, never in the tongue
Of him that makes it,”

although true, was still to be taken in rather a different sense from
that in which it is usually received. The former (a far higher species
of humour) may be recorded; the dramatic necessities of the other
occasion it to die with the author. The expression Abernethy threw into
his humour (though of course without that broadness which is excusable
in the drama, but which would have been out of place in a philosophical
discourse) was a quiet, much-subdued colouring, between the good-nature
of Dowton, and (a little closer perhaps to the latter) the more quiet
and gentlemanly portions of Munden.

Few old pupils will forget the story of the Major who had dislocated
his jaw.

This accident is a very simple one, and easily put right; but, having
once happened, it is apt to recur on any unusual extension of the lower
jaw. Abernethy used to represent this as a frequent occurrence with
an hilarious Major; but as it generally happened at mess, the surgeon
went round to him and immediately put it in again. One day, however,
the Major was dining about fourteen miles from the regiment, and, in a
hearty laugh, “out went his jaw.” They sent for the medical man, whom,
said Abernethy, we must call the apothecary. Well, at first, he thought
that the jaw was dislocated; but he began to pull and to show that he
knew nothing about the proper mode of putting it right again. On this,
the Major appeared to be very excited, and vociferated inarticulately
in a strange manner; when, all at once, the doctor, as if he had just
hit on the nature of the case, suggested that the Major’s complaint was
in his brain, and that he could not be in his right mind. On hearing
this, the Major became furious, which was regarded as confirmatory of
the doctor’s opinion; they accordingly seized him, confined him in
a strait-waistcoat and put him to bed, and the doctor ordered that
the barber should be sent for to shave the head, and a blister to be
applied “to the part affected.”

The Major, fairly beaten, ceased making resistance, but made the
best signs his situation and his imperfect articulation allowed, for
pen and paper. This request, being hailed as indicative of returning
rationality, was complied with; and, as soon as he was sufficiently
freed from his bonds, he wrote—”For God’s sake send for the surgeon of
the regiment.” This was accordingly done, and the jaw readily reduced,
as it had been often before. “I hope,” added Abernethy, “you will never
forget how to reduce a dislocated jaw.”

We think that what we have said of the style of his humour cannot be
very incorrect, from knowing that the impressions of one of his oldest
pupils and greatest admirers were almost identical with the foregoing.
I recollect it being said of John Bannister, that the reason his acting
pleased everybody was that he was always a gentleman; an extremely
difficult thing, we should imagine, in handling some of the freer parts
of our comic dialogues. Abernethy’s humour (exceptionally indeed, but
occasionally a little broad) never suggested the idea of vulgarity;
and, as we have said, every joke had its mission. Then, at times,
though there was not much humour, yet a promptness of repartee gave it
that character.

“Mr. Abernethy,” said a patient, “I have something the matter, sir,
with this arm. There, oh! (making a particular motion with the limb)
that, sir, gives me great pain.” “Well, what a fool you must be to do
it, then,” said Abernethy.

One of the most interesting facts in relation to Abernethy’s lecturing,
was, that however great his natural capacity, he certainly owed very
much to careful study and practice; and we cannot but think that it
is highly encouraging to a more careful education for this mode of
teaching, to know the difficulty that even such a man as Abernethy had
for some few years in commanding his self-possession. To those who only
knew him in his zenith or his decline, this will appear extraordinary;
yet, to a careful observer, there were many occasions when it was
easy to see that he did not appear so entirely at ease _without some
effort_. He was very impatient of interruption; an accidental knock
at the door of the theatre, which, by mistake of some stranger, would
occasionally happen, would disconcert him considerably; and once,
when he saw some pupil joking or inattentive, he stopped, and with a
severity of manner I hardly ever saw before or afterwards, said: “If the
lecture, sir, is not interesting to you, I must beg you to walk out.”

There were, as we shall hereafter observe, perhaps physical reasons
for this irritability. He never hesitated, as we occasionally hear
lecturers do, nor ever used any notes. When he came to any part that
he perhaps wished to impress, he would pause and think for a second
or two, with his class singularly silent. It was a fine moment. We
recollect being once at his lecture with the late Professor Macartney,
who had been a student of Abernethy’s[68]. Macartney said, “what can
it be that enables him to give so much interest to what we have so
often heard before?” We believe it to have been nothing but a steady
observance of rules, combined with an admirable power _matured by

That which, above everything, we valued in the whole of Abernethy’s
lectures, was what can hardly be expressed otherwise than by the
term, tone. With an absence of all affectation, with the infusion
of all sorts of different qualities: with humour, hilarity, lively
manner, sometimes rather broad illustrations, at other times, calm
and philosophical, with all the character of deep thought and acute
penetration; indignation at what was wrong or unfeeling, and pathos in
relation to irremediable calamity; still the thing which surpassed all,
was the feeling, with which he inoculated the pupils, of a high and
conscientious calling. He had a way which excited enthusiasm without
the pupil knowing why. We are often told by lecturers of the value of
knowledge for various purposes—for increasing the power and wealth of
the country—for multiplying the comforts and pleasures of society—for
amassing fortunes, and for obtaining what the world usually means by
the term distinction. But Abernethy created a feeling distinct from and
superior to all mere utilitarian purposes. He made one feel the mission
of a conscientious surgeon to be a high calling, and spurned, in manner
as well as matter, the more trite and hackneyed modes of inculcating
these things. You had no set essay, no long speeches. The _moral_
was like a golden thread artfully interwoven in a tissue to which it
gives a diffusive lustre; which, pervading it everywhere, is obtrusive

For example, the condition attached to the performance of our lowest
duties (operations), were, the well-ascertained inefficacy of our
best powers directed to judicious treatment; the _crowning_ test—the
conviction that, placed in the same circumstances, _we would have the
same operation performed on ourselves_. Much of the suggestive lies
in these directions. Our sympathies toward the victims of mistake or
ignorance, excited by the relation of their sufferings, were heightened
by the additional mention of any good quality the patient might have
possessed, or advantage of which he might have been deprived; and thus
that interest secured which a bare narration of the case might have
failed to awaken.

A father, who, in subservience to the worldly prospects of his son,
placed him in a situation to which he was unequal, and thus forgot his
first duty, the health of his offspring, was the “murderer” of his
child. Another victim, we have seen, was as “brave a fellow as ever
stepped,” &c.

Humanity and Science went hand in hand. His method of _discovering_
the nature of dislocations and fractures, by attention to the relative
position of parts, was admirable; and few of his pupils, who have
had much experience, have failed to prove the practical excellence
of them. He repudiated nothing more than the too commonly regarded
test, in fractures, of “grating, or crepitus.” Nothing distinguished
his examination of a case more than his gentleness, unless it was the
clearness with which he delivered his opinion.

To show how important gentleness is—a surgeon had a puzzling case
of injury to the elbow. He believed that he knew the nature of the
accident, and that he had put the parts right; but still the joint
remained in a half-straight position; and the surgeon, who knew his
business, became alarmed, lest something had escaped him, and that
the joint would be stiff. He proposed a consultation. The joint was
examined with great gentleness, and after Abernethy’s plan. The boy
experienced no pain. Everything appeared in its natural position. The
surgeon said: “Now, my boy, bend your arm a little, but no farther
than just to reach my finger; and not as much as that, if it gives you
any pain.” This the boy did very gently. After waiting a few minutes,
the surgeon again told him to bend it a little more, and upon the same
conditions; and so on, until, in a very short space of time—perhaps
eight or ten minutes—the arm had been completely bent. The boy had
been alarmed, and the muscles had become so sensitive that they held
the parts with the most painful tenacity; but, beyond this, there was
nothing the matter.

We cannot help thinking that Abernethy’s benevolence had a great
influence in directing some of his happiest contributions to practice.
We consider that every sufferer with that serious accident, fracture
of the neck of the thigh bone within the joint, owes a great portion
of any recovery he may have, to Abernethy. It was he who was the real
means of overthrowing a dangerous dogma, that such cases could not
unite by bone, and who opposed the practice consequent on it, by which
reparation by bone became impossible. There was hardly any subject
which he touched, of which he did not take some view more or less
original; and his reasoning was always particularly simple and to the
point. No man, we believe, ever exceeded him in the skill he possessed
in conveying ideas from one mind into another; but he did a great deal
more: those who really studied him were sent away thinking, and led to
work with a kind of pleasure, which was in some sense distinct from any
merely practical or professional interest.

He contrived to imbue you with the love of philosophical research
in the abstract—with an interest in truth for its own sake;
you found yourself remembering the bare facts, not so much from
conscious _efforts_ of memory, as from the suggestive interest of the
observations with which they were so frequently associated. In going
over one of his Lectures alone, they seem to grow and expand under your
own reflections. We know not how to express the effect they produced:
they seemed to give new pleasure on repetition, to purify your thoughts
scarcely less than they animated your onward studies.

In studying their more suggestive passages, you would now and then feel
surprise at the number and variety of important practical relations
arising out of a single proposition. We are here merely stating our
own early impressions of his power. What we always really felt was,
that, great as was the excellence of these Lectures in a scientific
or professional sense, there was something more excellent still in
the element they contained of intellectual expansion and of moral

We cannot indeed say that they had no faults; but we should be hard
driven to point them out: and although we feel how short our attempt
to give some idea of his mode of proceeding must fall of doing him
justice, still, if there be any truth at all in our representation, it
is quite clear that his negative excellences alone must have implied
no ordinary powers. But we must conclude: “Quid multa? istum audiens
equidem sic judicare soleo; quidquid aut addideris aut mutaveris aut
detraxeris, vitiosius et deterius futurum.”

HOR. Is it a custom?

HAMLET. Ay, marry, is’t:
But, to my mind, though I am native here
And to the manner born, it is a custom
More honoured in the breach than the observance.

HAMLET, Act I, Sc. IV.

If a moralist were to divide his catalogue of immoralities into such
as were of general commission, and such as occurred in the conduct of
the various trades and professions, we fear the latter division would
suggest no flattering position to humanity. An elevation somewhat above
gifted creatures it might be; but still we fear it would be at so low a
level as to afford Man but a humiliating indication of the height from
which he had fallen. He would, in too many instances, perhaps, find his
real _claims_ to his high destiny about equal to the shadowy difference
between a creature who fulfils _some_ only of his responsibilities,
and one who has no responsibilities to fulfil. We should like to hear
some grave philosopher discourse on Fashion: it is surely a curious
thing, for there is a fashion in everything. It is very like habit; but
it is not habit neither. Habit is a garment, which takes some time to
fit easily, and is then not abandoned without difficulty. Fashion is a
good fit _instanter_, but is thrown aside at once without the smallest
trouble. The most grotesque or absurd custom which slowly-paced
habit bores us with examining, is at once adopted by fashion with a
characteristic assentation.

Morals are by no means free from this kind of conventionalism: so
much the contrary, that few things evince more strongly the power of
fashion. It might be imagined that the multiplication of examples would
tend to teach the true nature of the thing exemplified; but it would
not seem so with error; “_tout au contraire_.” Arts or acts, which are
tabooed as vicious in the singular number, become, in the plasticity of
our moral grammars, very tolerable in the plural. Things that the most
hardy shrink from perpetrating _single-handed_, are regarded as easy
“compliances with custom” when “joint-stock” vices; practices which,
when partial, men are penetrating enough to discover to be unchristian,
or sufficiently sensitive to regard as ungentlemanly, pass muster with
marvellous lubricity when they become universal. We can anathemize,
with self-complacent indignation, vices in which we have no share; but
we are abundantly charitable when we discuss those in which we have a
common property; and, finally, moral accounts are settled very much to
our own satisfaction, as Butler says, by compounding

“For sins we are inclined to,
By damning those we have no mind to.”

After all, society keeps a pretty good “look-out” after offences
distributed in common. The law is tolerably comprehensive of things
which are of general commission; and mankind, sooner or later, contrive
to catch, or successfully oppose, the numerous little enormities which
slip through the finest of our legal meshes.

“Raro antecedentem scelestum,
Deseruit pede pœna claudo.”

From all this it results that moral obliquities, which fall within the
observation of society, make but an up-hill game; that which is _felt_
to be prejudicial to the interests of all men, is easily determined
to be vicious. But here again there is much in fashion. Society has
often determined that the immorality of a thing is not to be measured
by the nature of the act, nor the motive even on which it has been
founded, so much as by the more refined test afforded by the _position_
of the _actor_. One man may, like a sort of commercial megatherium,
gorge, with railway velocity, provisions which a once-breathing, fond
affection and a cold world had alike determined to be the life-blood of
widows and orphans, and yet have noblemen and others for his associate!
he may perhaps be a legislator in a great nation; whilst the poor
starveling, who steals for the vulgar purpose of satisfying hunger, may
be sent to the treadmill, where he may solve at leisure the problem
thus set him, by “the most enlightened nation on earth.”

Again, vices which have a known influence in disturbing the relations
of society are in various ways opposed by the more _public_ influence
of religion. So that in the end a man finds—although he may arrive at
the conclusion, only by exhausting all other views before he hits on
those which lead to it—that honesty is as good a way of getting on as
any other; or he may advance perhaps even on this utilitarian creed so
far as to agree with Tillotson: that people take more trouble to get to
Hell, than would suffice to carry them to Heaven. The immoralities of
trades and professions lie in a very different position, and involve
peculiarities which favour their growth and perpetuity.

They are committed in secret;—people are proverbially cautious of
attacking the weak positions of others, who feel that their own are
ill-defended. This, and the established manœuvres of each calling,
enable an individual to do a good deal “off his own bat,” without, as
one of our bishops happily expressed it, “being caught out.” In trade
we are sometimes informed that a thing cannot be sold cheaper; that the
price asked is already less than the cost; and people are appropriately
addressed as idiots, who every day appear to believe that which common
sense shows to be impossible.

Your purveyors will sometimes tell you that they are not living by the
prices they charge; although you have just ascertained that the same
article may be bought at infinitely less cost in the next market. The
other day, a watchmaker told us that our watch wanted a good deal of
looking to, and, amongst other things, “no doubt cleaning;” but this he
discovered, we suppose, by some recondite mesmeric process in a book,
which recorded when it had been cleaned last, without looking at the
watch at all.

As regards professions, lawyers are said to defend right and wrong with
indiscriminate avidity, with the encouraging prospect of obtaining more
fruit in maintaining one wrong cause, than establishing twenty right.

Then the _real nature_ of these things is, like too many in other
sciences, obscured by a cloudy nomenclature. We hear of “customs of
the trade,” “secrets of the trade,” or “profession,” applied to things
which the moralist only recognizes under very different designations.
Sophisms thus secured, and which appear to minister to a man’s
interests, have their true colours developed with difficulty; to say
nothing of it not being easy to discover that which there is no desire
to examine.

If any man should be so “peculiar,” or “crotchety,” as to consider that
names are of little import, and that “Vice is vice, for a’ that,” and
venture to anathematize any custom, or even refuse to be an accessory,
in declining to wink at it, he may encounter charges of violating
professional confidence, of being deficient in a proper _esprit de
corps_, and be outvoted, for no better reason than that he cannot
concur in the dogma, that a _vicious sophism is more valuable than a
simple truth_; nor agree with the currier, “that leather is the best
material for fortification.” He may possibly be let off by conceding
his connivance; which is little better than declining to be thief, as
too shocking; but having no objection to the more lubricated position
of the receiver.

But does any one for one moment believe that all this can be hung
on any trade, or profession, with no effect? Or that it will not
have a baneful influence on every calling, and that in proportion
as its _real_ and _proper_ duties are beneficent and exalted? Now,
whilst we claim for the medical profession a character which, in its
single-mindedness and benevolence, yields to no other whatever, we fear
it is not entirely free from these technical besettings.

In the medical profession, we trust, that which we, for want of a
better term, designate as technical immoralities are exceptions.
Exceptional they may be, and we sincerely hope they are; but, in
a crowded island, exceptions, even if _relatively_ few, may be
_absolutely_ numerous; and whenever they occur, especially if men hold
any position, one case of compromise of duty does more harm than a
hundred of the most inflexible adhesions to it can remedy. Suppose a
patient apply to a surgeon with a complaint requiring one operation,
and his fears incline him to another; he is informed it is improper for
his case: that so far from relieving him, it will indefinitely increase
his sufferings. The patient reiterates his wishes; the surgeon declines
doing that which he would not have done in his own person. On lamenting
what he believes to be the consequences of the patient’s determination,
to a brother surgeon, he is met by: “What a fool you must be to throw
away —— guineas; if you don’t do it, somebody else will.”

He is too right in his prediction, and so is the surgeon who refused
to operate, and he has lost a large fee; he receives the verification
of his prediction subsequently from the patient, who exclaims, “Sir,
I never have a moment’s ease!” and when, after weeks of suffering,
the patient dies, the surgeon consoles himself with the melancholy
satisfaction of not having contributed to sufferings which he was
called in too late to remedy.

The more plastic practitioner has, it is true, taken fifty or a hundred
guineas, it may be, out of the one pocket, and put it into his own; but
in what way are mankind benefited? or does any one really think that
the apparent gainer can ultimately be so? The fault in this, as in many
other cases, is the ignorance of the public. There is nothing in the
foregoing sketch that was not as easily intelligible to the commonest
understanding, as that two and two are equal to four! And is it no evil
that one man should pay so large a sum for so plain a piece of honesty?
or that another should be rewarded, as the case may be, for ignorance,
or a compromise of his duty?

Let us take another case. A gentleman was called on to give a
certificate; he examined the case, and found that the wording of the
certificate called on him to certify to that which was diametrically
opposite to the fact. He naturally declined, and, as the point was of
some importance, went to the parties to explain. He was then informed
that two professional men had, the previous day, given the certificate
without hesitation. He is complimented on his conscientiousness,
but never employed again by that family; and he has the further
satisfaction of hearing that his place is supplied by one of his
more accommodating brethren! We fear that in such a case there is a
balance to be adjusted between the several persons, and an appropriate
appellation to be discovered besides. We respectfully leave it to the
reader’s judgment to adjust the one, and to draw on his aptitude for
nomenclature to supply the other.

Again, a man is called in to a consultation; he disapproves of the
treatment, but declares to the friends of the patient that every thing
has been very properly done. In another case of consultation, finding
that every thing has been really conducted properly, he commences an
_apparently_ different treatment, but essentially the same, without
giving his confiding brother the benefit which his acquiescence in his
views would necessarily imply.

In an operation, where the course is doubtful and the opinion various,
the choice is left to the patient—that is, the decision of how the
surgeon is to act is to be determined by him who is confessedly really
least capable of judging. Can it be right to perform a _doubtful_
operation under such circumstances? Should not the patient reflect
that the _temptations_ are all on one side? The attempt to dispense
with the operation is laborious, time-consuming, anxious, encouraged
perhaps only by small, minute accessions of improvement, interspersed
with complaints of tedium and delay, and the result admitted to be
doubtful; the operation, on the other hand, is a work of a few minutes,
the remuneration munificent, the _éclat_ productive, and the labour
nothing. All this and much more no man can entirely prevent; the real
cause is the ignorance of the public, which a very little of the labour
they bestow on many far less important subjects would easily and
quickly dispel.

If these and multitudes of similar things are evils; if they contribute
to debase a profession and to charge the conscientious with unthankful
office and unrequited labour, and to confer fame and profit on a
triumphant chicanery; we surely must feel indebted—not only as
professional men, not merely as patients, but in a far higher and
wider sense—to a man who, availing himself of a commanding position
for the highest purposes, endeavoured, by precept and example, to
oppose all such proceedings, and to cultivate a high _morale_ in the
conduct of the profession. Now no one more sedulously aimed at this
than John Abernethy. Although we shall not, we trust, be accused of
underrating the obligations we owe him in a professional or scientific
sense, we think that, great as they are, they are at least equalled
by those arising out of that duty-to-your-neighbour spirit which was
so universally diffused through every thing he taught, and which, in
his intercourse with his pupils, he never on any occasion failed to
inculcate. We will endeavour to render what we mean intelligible, and
perhaps we cannot do this better than by selecting a few illustrations
from observation of “Abernethy in Consultation.”

Consultation. We are to have a consultation! What a sound is that! How
many a heart has been set thumping by this one word. We doubt whether
there be any in the English language that has more frequently disturbed
the current it was intended to calm. But consultations must be. Already
the carriage of a physician has arrived, a tremendous rap has been
given at the door, the interesting visitor is already in the library.

Another rap, louder somewhat than the former, announces another
physician, or a consulting surgeon. The general practitioner,
taking advantage of his intimacy with the family, may have perhaps
very sensibly walked in without knocking at all. They are now all
assembled in the library, and, having remarked on a “Storm Scene” by
Gaspar Poussin, which hangs over the fire-place, we leave them to the
preliminaries of a consultation.

Presently they are introduced to the patient, on whom the knocking has
already had some effect. A short pause, and they are again assembled
in the library. In a few minutes the bell rings, and the father of a
fine young woman is summoned to hear their decision. As he proceeds,
he stealthily removes a straggling tear that, with all care, would
get out of bounds, enters the library, and hears the result of the
consultation. Neatly enveloped _honoraria_ are presented to the
consultants, the bell has rung, Thomas has shown the gentlemen to their
respective vehicles, and and so ends the consultation.

The father, a widower, returns to the drawing-room, and his second
daughter says: “Well, papa, what do the doctors say of Emily?” “Well,
my dear, they say that Emily is very ill; that she requires great
care; that they cannot say positively, but hope she may ultimately do
well. They entirely coincide with our friend Mr. Smith Jones as to the
nature of the disease, and think his treatment of the case has been
highly judicious. They say there are some points on which the case may
turn, but of which they cannot speak positively to-day; but they hope
to be able to do so when they meet again, which they are to do the day
‘after to-morrow.’ They all seem to consider the nervous system very
much affected. They say we must keep Emily very quiet. She is to have
any light diet she desires, and to have some new medicine to-morrow.
The cod-liver oil, they say, has done her all the good now that it is
calculated to do, and she is this evening to take a composing draught.”
The family are silent, and so ends the consultation.

What! and are all consultations like that? No, reader, we hope not.
Many a valuable life has, we believe, been saved or prolonged by
consultation; and perhaps many more would be, if people would only
_think a little more before_ they act in such important matters.

But how is this to be, when men and women who _do_ think will dive into
all other branches of knowledge, more or less, and neglect all inquiry
into laws, a _general_ knowledge of which may easily be acquired, and
of which ignorance is so frequently visited by no less punishment
than the premature separation of our dearest ties, and the loss or
impairment of that which is acknowledged to be the first of temporal
blessings. There are many things in consultations, which require
putting right, which do not depend on any one man, or on any one class.
What are we to say to a man who admits the ability, and approves of
the investigative power and practice of another, but who cannot call
him in because he _orders so little medicine_? Or of the mode in which
the public treat another, who, wishing to practise as a gentleman, and
to be paid for his brains rather than his bottles, makes no charge for
the latter; and yet who informed us that, having tried this for three
years, he lost so many families by it, that if he had not relinquished
the plan, he should have wanted bread for his own? Or who shall we
blame, when one man, calling in another to a patient, finds that the
other feels no scruple in repaying the _prestige_ which he thus owes
to his confiding brother by taking the patient from him the first
opportunity; albeit that he occupies what should be, and, we trust, as
the rule is, a higher walk in the profession.

We have seen so much feeling arising from this practice, and we hold it
as so serious an error, that we regard it as _tending more than any one
thing whatever_ to injure the position and character of the consulting
branches of the profession.

Again, how inconsiderate must be the adoption of that custom which
first of all institutes an inquiry to ascertain whether there is
any difference of opinion, and yet accompanies it with trammels,
the tendency of which is to oblige men to _appear_ to agree. When
coincidence of opinion is _alone safe_, who can be expected to differ?
The public have allowed lawyers to differ without that difference
involving any reproach. They have also proverbially determined that
“doctors do.” Yet that which they consider as an almost necessary
rule in the one case, in the other they are very prone to visit, in
regard to some one of the dissentients, as a proof of professional
inferiority. A great deal of mischief results from this state of
things; it indefinitely increases the difficulty of obtaining a _really
honest_ and unreserved opinion, and leads to other consequences which
tend to impair that mutual confidence between man and man, which should
be the very life-blood of a fine profession.

We recollect a case, on the nature of which two surgeons were
consulted; and when the patient—a young lady—had been withdrawn, the
_father_ requested to know if there were any objection to his being
present at the conference. The surgeon to whom he seemed to address
himself said, “None on my part;” to which the other _seemed_ also
to assent. When the consultation was over, the surgeon who had thus
_seemed_ to consent addressed the other, saying: “If ever we meet
again, sir, our consultation must not be in the presence of the friends
of the patient.” This was said in a tone to which the other had not
been accustomed; but, as a lady had just then entered the room, no
reply was made. The next morning, however, the gentleman was called
on to re-consider the tone in which he had thus addressed his brother
consultant, when a satisfactory explanation settled the matter.

Such things, however, are extremely disagreeable, and illustrate how
much more easy it is to go straightforward than by any zigzag route.
What! could not a father hear the honest opinion of two men concerning
his child, until results of the consultation had been shorn down,
certain parts thrown out, and the rest dovetailed together so as to be
made a symmetrical nondescript, adapted to the requisitions of a vulgar

In another case, in a consultation on a disease as plainly scrofulous
as it was possible to be, the family attendant had pronounced that it
was _constitutional_, but _not_ scrofula. This was, it appeared, a
miserable assentation to the prejudices of the family, for the result
proved that he knew better. Nevertheless, a consultation had taken
place already with a very eminent surgeon, without the family being
any the wiser in regard to the nature of the disease. The case not
progressing, another surgeon was consulted, who, being asked what
he considered the disease to be, replied that it was scrofula. Upon
this, considerable surprise and uneasiness were manifested on the part
of the family; and the surgeon, wondering what, in so plain a case,
could be the doubt, took occasion to see the former medical attendant,
and to ask him what he thought of the case; when he said that it was
clearly scrofula, and that he had _never known the children_ of certain
temperaments to which he considered the parents to belong, wholly
without a tendency to that disease; so that he had all along been
blinding the parents, so far as his opinion and that of another eminent
man went, to the real nature of the malady.

An occurrence, singular, as we hope, took place one day in
consultation, showing how comfortably the most questionable things
may appear to sit on a man’s conscience, if only supported by some
_supposed_ sanction from custom. Two surgeons met to consider a case.
They differed as to its nature and treatment; as thus—the one thought
a certain remedy necessary, and that any prospective consequences on
its employment merged into the necessity of the moment; the other
thought that remedy wholly unnecessary, and therefore held even the
_possibility_ of any prospective mischief, an insuperable objection to
its use; conceding, however, that it _might_ possibly, if the treatment
were conducted cautiously, be so managed as to secure the patient
from the consequences in question; and that, if the patient preferred
that course, after the matter had been fairly stated to him, he would
superintend the plan.

Having retired into another room to consult, they were now again
introduced to the patient, when the junior was somewhat startled to
hear his senior begin thus: “Well, sir, we have considered your case,
and we perfectly agree as to the nature of it.” Thinking that this
unexpected exordium might possibly be preliminary to some explanation
of the points on which they differed, the surgeon waited a minute to
hear what followed; but finding that his brother was irremediably
misrepresenting the matter, he said: “Stop, let us understand each
other!” and then stated what had really happened, and the exact nature
of their respective opinions; on which the other, in the coolest manner
possible, said: “Yes—exactly, you are quite right!” and so ended the

There is, no doubt, some fault on all sides. The public are too
uninformed on these important subjects, and therefore do much that
is equally against their own interests and the preservation of that
dignity and respect which should ever attach to a high-missioned
profession. But is the profession itself free from blame? Do they
never themselves minister to this wretched system of double dealing?
We fear there is but one answer to this question. We are not careful,
for obvious reasons, to multiply examples of such things; but we are
convinced that there must be a change; and since the profession cannot,
as too many of the public may, plead ignorance—for this and a thousand
other reasons, they should lead the way. We only claim for ourselves
what we readily concede to others—the expression of our opinion—when
we say that consultations should be _bonâ fide_ examinations of the
case, and should be followed by _bonâ fide intelligible_ explanations
of it to the _patient_ or his _friends_, according to the obvious
suggestions of prudence or humanity in the individual case. When the
treatment is correct, the most honest proof should be afforded of it;
namely, the continuance of the plan of the attendant in ordinary,
unobscured by the farce or form of a prescription; or, if _additional_
appliance only is adopted, in such a case its subordinate character
should be honestly explained.

Where there is difference of view, if it be material, that also should
be candidly stated; and if this be done with _real fairness_, our
experience has convinced us that it may be effected without damage
to either party. In other differences of opinion, the public never
think it necessary to impute ignorance or incapacity: let them, _for
their own sakes_, repudiate this construction in regard to the medical
profession. Lastly, let them for ever abandon the practice of paying
any man for his bottles, the number of which will often be an inverse
ratio with his skill and judgment.

To return to Abernethy. No doubt his manner varied in consultation; but
of “Manner” we shall speak in a separate chapter. We will here record
our impressions as to “Abernethy in consultation;” the conditions
which seemed to secure a considerate opinion from him; the good sense
and reasonableness of those conditions; the practical result of the
observance of them, and the effect they were calculated to produce on
the public, in giving to consultations that efficiency by which they
should be characterized—an efficiency which _every one_ begins to
perceive to be necessary, and which must be equally to the advantage of
the public and the elevation of the profession.

Continue Reading


“Oft expectation fails, and most oft there
Where most it promises.”


No man, perhaps, ever made a happier application of a Divine precept to
the conduct of human pursuits than Lord Bacon, when he said that the
kingdom of man founded in the sciences must be entered like the kingdom
of God—that is, as a little child.

Independently of the sublimity of the comparison, it is no less
remarkable for its practical excellence.

How many broken friendships, enmities, and heart-burnings might have
been prevented, had even a very moderate degree of the temper of
mind here so beautifully typified been allowed to preside over human
labour! How charitably should we have been led to judge of the works
of others! how measured the approbation of the most successful of our
own! No doubt, in the pursuit of truth, there is great difficulty in
commanding that combination of fearlessness towards the world, and
that reverential humility towards the subject, both of which are alike
necessary; although the one may be more essential to the _discovery_ of
truth, the other the _enunciation_ of it.

To pursue truth regardless of the multiform errors and
conventionalisms, amidst which experience has generally shown almost
all subjects to have been involved; unmindful of the rebukes and
obloquy by which too often the best-conducted investigations are
opposed and assailed; and yet to let no angry passion stir, no
conviction that we are right engender an improper idea of our own
superiority, or a disregard for the claims of others; this overcoming
of the world (we had almost said) is intensely difficult, for it is
in fact overcoming ourselves. Yet we dare not say it is that of which
human nature is incapable, for there is nothing that the heart suggests
as morally right which is really impossible to us; and instances have
not been wanting of the combination of the deepest knowledge with the
most profound humility.

On the other hand, it must be admitted that if there were anything
especially calculated to bring down the cultivators of science and
literature to the level of those who are regardless of the claims, or
insensible to the attractions of either; we could hardly find a series
of facts more fatally influential than are furnished by the disputes
of men who have been employed in the cultivation of these elevating
studies. Powerful intellects in teaching the comparative nothingness
of man’s knowledge seem to give great assistance in the acquisition
of humility; but how few are the intellects of such power? The
contemplation of nature, however, may, we conceive, infuse _feelings_
of humility, which can rarely be attained by the efforts of intellect

We have seen, in Lord Bacon, that the highest powers of intellect
afforded for a while no security against the subtle, but one would have
thought feeble, suggestions of a degrading cupidity. We all know, in
literature, how much the fruits of intellect depend on the dominant
feeling under which they are reared and nourished. Even men like Pope
and Addison, who had little in common but that which should elevate and
adorn human nature, were so dragged down by the demon of controversy,
that, commencing with little more than the irritability of poets, they
ceased only when they had forgotten even the language of gentlemen.
In the controversy in question, Mr. Abernethy’s position was a very
difficult one, and one which shows how easily a man with the best
intentions may find himself engaged in a discussion which he never
contemplated; be wounded on points on which he was most sensitive, and
yet defend himself with dignity, and without compromise of any of those
principles which should guide a gentleman and a Christian.

Mr. Lawrence was appointed Professor of Comparative Anatomy in 1816;
and we know that Mr. Abernethy hailed his appointment with considerable
interest. He was regarded as a gentleman of some promise, and had
already distinguished himself by a singularly nice, level style of
composition, as well as by careful compilation.

Nothing could seem more auspicious than such a prospect. Mr. Abernethy
was a man remarkable for the original view he took of most subjects;
a vast experience, gathered from various sources by a mind combining
vividly perceptive powers with great capacity for reflection, a
conformation well adapted for opening out _new paths, and extending
the boundaries of science_. Abernethy was now to be associated with
a colleague who had already manifested no ordinary talent for the
graceful and judicious exposition of what _was already known_.

Nothing could have seemed more promising; nor was there anything in
the opening of Mr. Lawrence’s first lecture which seemed calculated
to baulk these expectations. His exordium contained an appropriate
recognition of Mr. Abernethy, which, as we should only mar it by
extract, we give entire. Having referred to the circumstances which
immediately preceded his appointment, Mr. Lawrence thus proceeds:

“To your feelings I must trust for an excuse, if any be thought
necessary, for taking the earliest opportunity of giving utterance to
the sentiments of respect and gratitude I entertain for the latter
gentleman (Mr. Abernethy). You and the public know, and have long
known, his acute mind, his peculiar talent for observation, his
zeal for the advancement of surgery, and his successful exertions
in improving the scientific knowledge and treatment of disease; his
singular happiness in developing and teaching to others the original
and philosophic views which he naturally takes of all subjects that
come under his examination, and the success with which he communicates
that enthusiasm in the cause of science and humanity which is so warmly
felt by himself; the admirable skill with which he enlivens the dry
details of elementary instruction are most gratefully acknowledged by
his numerous pupils.

“All these sources of excellence have been repeatedly felt in this
theatre. Having had the good fortune to be initiated in the profession
by Mr. Abernethy, and to have lived for many years under his roof,
I can assure you, with the greatest sincerity, that however highly
the public may estimate the surgeon and philosopher, I have reason to
speak still more highly of the man and of the friend, of the invariable
kindness which directed my early studies and pursuits, and the
disinterested friendship which has assisted every step of my progress
in life, the independent spirit and the liberal conduct which, while
they dignify the profession, win our love, command our respect for
genius and knowledge, converting these precious gifts into instruments
of the most extensive public good[38].”

This graceful exordium, so appropriate to the mutual relations of Mr.
Abernethy and Mr. Lawrence, deriving, too, a peculiar interest from the
circumstances under which it was delivered, had also the rare merit
of an eulogium marked by a comprehensive fidelity. There is nothing
fulsome or overstrained. Mr. Abernethy’s well-known excellences were
touchingly adverted to as matters with which all were _in common_
familiar, whilst the necessarily more special facts of his social
virtues were judiciously brought out in just relief, and as an
appropriate climax, by one who appeared animated by a grateful and
personal experience of them. It is distressing to think that anything
should have followed otherwise than in harmony with that kindness and
benevolence which, whilst it forms the most auspicious tone for the
calm pursuits of philosophy, confers on them the purifying spirit of
practical Christianity.

Mr. Lawrence’s first lecture consisted mainly of an able and
interesting _exposé_ of the objects and advantages of Comparative
Anatomy to the physiologist, pathologist, medical man, and the
theologian; together with numerous references to those authors to
whom the science was most indebted. The second lecture was devoted
to the consideration and the discussion of various views which had
been entertained of the living principle, or by whatever name we may
designate that force which is the immediate cause of the phenomena of
Living Bodies.

Amongst others, those entertained by Mr. Hunter and advocated by Mr.
Abernethy were referred to; but in a tone which was not, perhaps, best
suited to promote calm discussion, and which we may be allowed to
say was unfortunate—a tone of ridicule and banter, which was hardly
suited either to the subject, the place, or the distinguished men to
whom it related; to say the least of it, it was unnecessary. We do not
quote these passages, because they are, we think, not necessary to the
narrative, and could, we think, now give no pleasure to any party[39].

In Mr. Abernethy’s next lecture at the College, he still advocated
the rational nature of Mr. Hunter’s views of Life; and, in a most
interesting exposition of the Gallery of the Museum, opposed at every
opportunity the views of certain French physiologists which Mr.
Lawrence had adopted.

He did this, however, without naming Mr. Lawrence; and applied his
remarks to the whole of those who had advocated the opinions that Life
was the result of organization, as a “Band of modern sceptics.”

Mr. Abernethy had, as he says, argued against a party, and studiously
kept Mr. Lawrence, as an individual, out of view. He, however, argued
roundly against the views advocated by him, and endeavoured to show
that those of Mr. Hunter, besides being at least a philosophical
explanation of the phenomena, had a good moral tendency; although he
admitted that the belief that man was a mere machine did not alter
established notions, and that there were many good sceptics, still he
thought that the “belief of the distinct and independent nature of mind
incited people to act rightly,” &c.

In regard to the general influence of the state of France, he says,
“Most people think and act with a party;” and that “in France, where
the writings of the philosophers and wits had greatly tended to
demoralize the people, he was not surprised that their anatomists and
physiologists should represent the subject of their studies in a manner
conformable to what is esteemed most philosophical and clever; but
that in this country the mere opinions of some French anatomists with
respect to the nature of life should be extracted from their general
writings, translated, and extolled, cannot but excite surprise and
indignation in any one apprized of their pernicious tendency.”

There is no doubt that there was at the time, in this country, a
disposition in many people to disseminate very many opinions on various
subjects different from those usually entertained; and we believe that
this disposition was very greatly increased by the well-intentioned, no
doubt, but in our view injudicious, means employed for the suppression
of them.

We think it important to remember this; because, in estimating fairly
any books or lectures, we must regard the spirit of the time in which
they were delivered—what would be judicious or necessary at one
period, being, of course, unnecessary or injudicious at another.

In relation to the opinions of the nature of life; that which Mr.
Abernethy alleged that he intended to apply to a party, Mr. Lawrence
alleged that he held as personally applying to himself. Accordingly,
the following course of Mr. Lawrence’s lectures commenced with “A
Reply to the ‘Charges’ of Mr. Abernethy.” This lecture, which it is
impossible for any man, mindful of all the circumstances, to peruse
without pain (especially if we include the notes), is couched in
language of the most vituperative and contemptuous character: sarcasm,
ridicule, imputation of corrupt motives, by turn, are the weapons
wielded with the appearance of the most unrelenting virulence.

Those of the audience who had heard the graceful exordium, which
we have quoted, to the first course of lectures, and which so
appropriately represented a just tribute to a great master and kind
friend, from a distinguished and favoured pupil, were now to listen to
a discourse which was so charged with various shades and descriptions
of ridicule and invective, as scarcely to be paralleled in the whole
history of literary or scientific controversy. We have recently again
perused the respective Lectures, and we are utterly at a loss to
understand how the most sensitive mind could have found anything in
Mr. Abernethy’s Lectures to call for such a “Reply.” As it appears
to us, its very virulence was calculated to weaken its force, and
to enlist the sympathies of people on the opposite side. We again
forbear quotation. All we have to do is to show that circumstances of
very unusual provocation, such as no man living could help feeling
most deeply, and which bore on one who was acutely sensitive, never
materially disturbed the native benevolence of Abernethy’s disposition.

The dispute, however, soon merged into matters which the public
regarded as more important. Mr. Lawrence, in the lectures which
followed, took occasion to make some remarks on the Scriptures, which
gave great offence, and led other writers to engage in a controversy
which now assumed more of a theological than a physiological character.
This, however, rather belongs to the writings and opinions of Mr.
Lawrence, than to the life of Abernethy. We will therefore at once
offer the very few observations which we alone think it necessary to
make, either in justice to Mr. Abernethy or the profession.

[Footnote 38: March, 1816. Introductory Lecture to Comparative Anatomy.
Published, July.]

[Footnote 39: Introduction to Comp. Anat. by W. Lawrence, F.R.S.
London, 1816.]

“Love all, trust a few,
Do wrong to none: be able for thine enemy
Rather in power than use; and keep thy friend
Under thine own Life’s key: be check’d for silence,
But never tax’d for speech. What Heaven more will,
That thee may furnish, and my prayers pluck down,
Fall on thy head!”


In reviewing the facts of the foregoing controversy, we are anxious to
restrict our remarks to such points as fall within the proper scope of
our present object. These appear to us to relate to the mode in which
Mr. Abernethy conducted his argument, as being legitimate or otherwise;
secondly, the influence the whole affair had in developing one of the
most important features in his character; and, lastly, the impression
it produced, for good or evil, on the public mind, in relation to our

We would observe, in the first place, that the difficulty of Mr.
Abernethy’s position was very painful and peculiar. We are not learned
in controversy; but we should imagine that position to have been almost
without parallel. Mr. Lawrence had been his pupil. As we have seen,
Mr. Abernethy had been his patron and his friend; and, moreover, he
had been not a little instrumental in placing Mr. Lawrence in the
Professor’s chair. This instrumentality could not have been merely
passive. Mr. Abernethy himself was not a senior of the Council at that
time. At all events, he was associated at the College with men much
older than himself, and must have owed any influence in the appointment
to an active expression of his wishes, supported by that attention
to them which, though not necessarily connected with his standing at
the College, was readily enough, no doubt, conceded to his talents
and his reputation. His singleness of mind in this business was the
more amiable, because, had he been disposed to be inactive, there were
not wanting circumstances which might not unnaturally have induced
some hesitation on the subject. In the postscript at the end of Mr.
Abernethy’s published Lectures, delivered at the College, we learn
that, “From an early period of his studies, Mr. Lawrence had been
accustomed to decry and scoff at what I taught as Mr. Hunter’s opinions
respecting life and its functions; yet,” he adds, “as I never could
find that he had any good reason for his conduct, I continued to teach
them in the midst of the controversy, and derision of such students as
had become his proselytes,” &c.

This could hardly have been very agreeable. The pupils were wont to
discuss most subjects in their gossips in the Square of the hospital,
or elsewhere; and many a careless hour has not been unprofitably so
employed. On such occasions, those who were so inclined would no
doubt use ridicule, or any other weapon that suited their purpose;
and so long as any reasonable limits were observed, Mr. Abernethy was
the last person likely to take notice of anything which might have
reached him on the subject. On the contrary, it was his excellence,
and his often-expressed wish that we should canvass every subject for
ourselves; and he would enforce the sincerity of his recommendation by
advising us with an often-repeated quotation:

“Nullius addictus jurare in verba magistri.”

Still, we cannot conceive that the desultory discussions at the
hospital, of which he might from time to time have accidentally heard,
could have prepared him to expect that a similar tone was to form any
portion of the sustained compositions of Lectures to be delivered in
Lincoln’s Inn Fields. When, however, he found his opinions ridiculed
there, by his friend and pupil, what was to be done? Was he to enter
into a direct personal sort of controversy with his colleague in office
at the College of Surgeons?

There was everything in that course that was inexpedient and
repulsive. Was he to be silent on opinions which he _knew_ to have been
Mr. Hunter’s, and of the moral and scientific advantages of which he
had a most matured conviction? That would have been a compromise of his
duty. It was a difficult dilemma—a real case of the

“Incidit in Scyllam qui vult vitare Charybdim.”

If he avoided one difficulty, he fell into another. He tried to take a
middle course—he argued in support of the opinions he had enunciated,
and aided these by additional illustrations; and, in contrasting them
with those opinions which were opposed to him, he endeavoured to
avoid a personal allusion to individuals, by arguing against a class,
which he termed the “band of modern sceptics.” Even this was a little
Charybdis, perhaps; because it had a sort of name-calling effect,
whilst it was not at all essential thus to embody in any one phrase the
persons who held opposite opinions.

His position was intensely difficult. It should be recollected that
Abernethy had always been a teacher of young men; that he had _always_
taught principles of surgery which he conceived to be deducible from
those delivered by Hunter; that he further believed that, to understand
Hunter clearly, it was necessary to have a correct notion of the idea
Mr. Hunter entertained of “Life;” and lastly, that, in _all_ his
Lectures, Abernethy had a constant tendency to consider, and a habit
of frequent appeal to, what, under different forms, might be regarded
as the moral bearings of any subject which might be under discussion.
We readily admit that, usually, in conducting scientific _arguments_,
the alleged moral tendencies of this or that view are more acceptable
when reserved to grace a conclusion, than when employed to enforce an
argument; yet we think that, now, comparatively few persons would think
the discussion of any subject bearing on the physical nature of Man,
complete, which omitted the very intimate and demonstrable relations
which exist between the moral and the physiological laws.

The point, however, which we wish to impress, is, that Mr. Abernethy,
in pleading the moral bearings of Hunter’s views by deductions of
his own, was simply following that course which he _had been in
the habit_ of doing on most other questions; it was merely part of
that plan on which, without the smallest approach at any attempt to
intrude religious considerations inappropriately into the discussion
of matters ordinarily regarded as secular, he had always inculcated
a straightforward, free-from-cant, do-as-you-would-be-done-by tone
in his own Lectures. This, while it formed one of their brightest
ornaments, was just that without which all lectures must be held as
defective, which are addressed to young men about to enter an arduous
and responsible profession.

Abernethy stated nothing as facts but which were demonstrably such; and
with regard to any hypotheses which he employed in aid of explaining
them, he observed those conditions which philosophers agree on as
necessary, whether the hypotheses be adopted or otherwise. He did not
do even this, but for the very legitimate object of explaining the
views of the man on whose labours he was discoursing.

When those views of Mr. Hunter, which had been thus set forth and
illustrated, were attacked, he defended them with his characteristic
ability; and although we will not undertake to say that the defence
contains no single passage that might not as well have been omitted, we
are not aware that, from the beginning to the end, it is charged with a
single paragraph that does not fall fairly within the limits that the
most stringent would prescribe to scientific controversy.

The discussion of abstract principles is generally unprofitable. We
think few things more clear than that we know not the intrinsic nature
of _any_ abstract principle; and although it would be presumptuous
to say we never shall, yet we think it impossible for any reflecting
student in any science to avoid perceiving that there are peculiar
relations between the _laws_ of nature and the human capacity, which
most emphatically suggest that the study of the one is the _proper
business_, and the _prescribed limit_ to the power, of the other.

Still, the poverty of language is such, as regards the expression
of natural phenomena, that necessity has obliged us to clothe the
forces in nature with some attribute sufficiently in conformity with
our ideas to enable us to give them an intelligible expression; and,
whether we talk of luminous particles, ethereal undulations, electric
or magnetic fluids, matter of heat, &c. we apprehend that no one now
means more than to convey an intellectually tangible expression, of
certain _forces_ in nature, of which he desires to discourse; in order
to describe the _habitudes_ they observe, or the laws which they obey.
This is all we think it necessary to say on the scientific conduct of
the argument by Abernethy.

The public have long since expressed their opinion on Mr. Lawrence’s
Reply and Lectures; and whatever may be regarded as their decision,
we have no disposition to canvass or disturb it. There was nothing
wonderful, however unusual, in a young man so placed, in a profession
like ours, getting into a controversy with a man of such eminence as
Abernethy, particularly on speculative subjects. There were in the
present case, to be sure, very many objections to such a position; but
these it was Mr. Lawrence’s province to consider. On this, and many
other points, we have as little inclination as we have right, perhaps,
to state our opinion. Nevertheless, we must not omit a few words in
recognition of Mr. Abernethy’s efforts, and a few observations on the
conduct of the governing body of the College at that time. In the
first place, we feel obliged to Mr. Abernethy for the defence he made
on that occasion: not from the importance of any abstract theory, but
from the tendency that his whole tone had to inculcate just views of
the nature and character of the profession. But we can by no means
acquit the Council of the College, at the time of the said controversy,
of what we must conceive to have been a great neglect of duty. There
is, amongst a certain class of persons, an idea that the medical
profession are sceptical on religious subjects; and many of these
persons are people of whom it is impossible not to value the respect
and good opinion. We never could trace any _legitimate_ grounds for the
conclusion. On inquiry, it has always appeared to be nothing more than
a “vulgar error,” resting, as “vulgar errors” generally do, on general
conclusions drawn by people who have deduced them from insufficient

Sometimes, the persons indulging in this idea have known a medical man
whom _they consider_ to be unstable in his religious views; another
knows that Mr. A. or B. never goes to church; sometimes, even political
differences have been held sufficient excuse for impugning the
soundness of a man’s ideas on the all-important subject of religion. We
have never been able to discover any grounds on which they could, with
any show of justice, support so serious an imputation. For our parts,
we know not how the necessary data are to be obtained, and therefore
should shrink from anything so presumptuous as an attempt to describe
the religious character of any profession.

We have no means of obtaining the evidence necessary even to examine,
much less to support, so serious and difficult a generalization.
The great bulk of our profession are general practitioners; and in
forming opinions in regard to any class of men, we naturally look to
the greatest number. So far as our own experience has gone, we cannot
find the slightest ground for the degrading imputation. Like all other
medical men, their labours are incessant, their hours of recreation
few, and far between. In their requisitions on their time, the public
regard neither night nor day, nor the Sabbath, when they require
attention. Then, if we look to conduct as no unreasonable test of
religion, we may, like all other professions, have blots. We have, in
all grades, it may be, our fee-hunters and long-billed practitioners;
but whether we regard the physician, surgeon, or general practitioner,
we verily believe that there are no men in the kingdom who, as a body,
conduct themselves more honourably, none who are less mercenary, none
who, in relation to their position, are less affluent—no bad test—nor
who do one-tenth of the work which they do, without any remuneration

With regard to the alleged absence from public worship, there may be
(however explicable) some ground for the remark, and especially as no
profession shows, in the general respectability of their conduct, a
more ready and respectful acquiescence in the established usages of

But let the question be fairly stated. How many medical men can go to
church every Sunday, and to the same church, without a compromise of
a paramount duty? We are ready to concede, that the necessities which
professional calls impose on so many occasions, may have a tendency to
form habits, when impediments are less pressing; but is it not rather
the exactions of the public, than the choice of the profession, which
imposes the necessity? How many of the public would be satisfied, if
they wished to see a professional man on any pressing occasion, and
were told that he could not be seen for a couple of hours, as he was
going to church?

Highly as we venerate the benign and beautiful ordinance of the
Sabbath, important as we think it, that, on all accounts, it should be
observed with reverence and gratitude,—still we should hesitate before
we regarded the single act of attendance or absence on public worship
as a safe or charitable exposition of any man’s religious stability.
We, therefore, as far as in us lies, repudiate the charge; we regard it
as groundless; and think that, as no profession affords more frequent
opportunities for a constant awakening and keeping alive the best
sympathies of our nature, so no profession can be more calculated to
impress the fragile nature of the body, as contrasted with the immortal
spirit which inhabits it, or the constant presence of that Power by
whose laws they are both governed. But groundless as we think the
charge, we must contend that the apathy of the Council of the College,
at the time Mr. Lawrence delivered the lectures in question, was a
serious neglect of duty. In those Lectures, Mr. Lawrence spoke of the
Old Testament in a tone which must, we think, be regarded as irrelevant
to, or at least unnecessary in, a course of Lectures on Comparative

We hold no sympathy with that sort of persecution with which several
well-intentioned people visited the book; but we must always regard
the Council of the time as having been neglectful of their duty.
Lectures on Comparative Anatomy do not render it necessary to impugn
the historical correctness, or the inspired character, of the Old
Testament. What answer could private individuals make, or with what
influence could they oppose the prejudices of the public in relation
to the religious securities afforded by men in whom they confide, when
they saw a young professor allowed to introduce into lectures—given
to an audience composed of the most aged and eminent of the profession,
as well as of many of those who were just commencing their studies,
delivered, too, at the chartered College of the profession—matter
which was not only not at all necessary to the most ample exposition
of the subject, but which, as we have said, only alluded to the
Old Testament in a manner calculated to weaken its authority as an
historical document, and to impugn its inspired character?

Surely there was no more certain mode of giving an _ex cathedrâ_
sanction to the unfavourable impressions of the public; impressions
which tend to tarnish the lustre of a profession which founds its claim
to respect on its high office in kindly ministrations and unquestioned
utility; and to arm a vulgar and unfounded prejudice with all the
influence of Collegiate recognition. If, indeed, the College had
desired to support the alleged favourable tendency of Mr. Abernethy’s
views, or the alleged opposite bearings of those to which he was
opposed, they could hardly have done better than to have allowed of
the irrelevant matter in question. But we have done. It is no part of
our business to quote passages, or further to renew discussions long
since passed away, than is necessary for our proper objects. But when
we consider on how many points Abernethy must have been hurt, the very
difficult and perplexing position in which he was placed, we cannot
too much admire the very measured tone he adopted throughout; or the
evidently wounded feeling, but still dignified yet simple statement in
the published Postscript in his Lectures; and though there had been no
subsequent exemplification of his forgiving temper—which was not the
case—we should still have felt obliged to regard the whole affair as
indicative of great goodness of heart; and, when all the circumstances
of disappointment and vexation are duly weighed, of almost unexampled

It is just to Mr. Lawrence to observe, that, some few years after
this, the Governors of Bethlem Hospital, on the annual (and usually
formal) election of the surgeon, an office held by Mr. Lawrence, threw
the appointment open to competition; on which occasion Mr. Lawrence
published a letter expressing regret, in general terms, as to certain
passages in the Lectures in question, and his determination not to
publish any more on similar subjects. The coincidence of this letter
with the threatened tenure of office, of course gave rise to the usual
remarks; but, if a man say he is sorry for a thing, perhaps it is
better not to scan motives too closely. Mankind stand too much in need
of what Burns suggests, and with which we close this not very agreeable

“Then gently scan your brother man,
Still gentler sister woman;
Though they may gang a kennin wrang,
To step aside is human.”

“And though they prove not, they confirm the cause,
When what is taught agrees with Nature’s laws.”


In endeavouring to give some idea of Abernethy’s manner in more
sustained compositions, we have made some selections from the Lectures
he delivered at the College of Surgeons. Without any pretensions to a
critically faultless style, there always seemed to us to be a peculiar
simplicity, combined with a broad and comprehensive range of thought.
Sometimes, too, he has almost a “curiosa felicitas” in the tone of
his expressions; though this was more remarkable, we think, when he
felt more free; that is, in his unrivalled teaching at the Hospital,
of which we shall endeavour to give a more particular account. As we
have before remarked, it is impossible to do full justice to Abernethy,
unless we were to publish his works, with a running commentary; and we
fear that in the selections we offer we have incurred a responsibility
which we shall not properly fulfil. To convey the full, the suggestive
merit of even some of the following passages, it would be necessary to
state carefully the relation they bear to the state of science, both
chemical and physiological, at the time they were written, and the

The interest of the Lectures is so evenly distributed through the
whole, that selection is very difficult; and being obliged to consider
our limits, we have, in the absence of a better guide, selected the
passages at random, as suggested by our own impressions of them. We
therefore can only earnestly recommend the perusal of the Lectures
themselves, as equally entertaining and instructive to the general as
well as the professional reader. The varied expression and manner,
and his fine intellectual countenance, by which he imparted so
much interest to his delivery on every subject he touched, will be
considered in connection with his success in the art of lecturing, to
which these somewhat formal specimens may serve as an introduction.



“When, therefore, we perceive in the universe at large a cause of rapid
and powerful motions of masses of inert matter, may we not naturally
conclude that the inert molecules of vegetable and animal matter may be
made to move in a similar manner by a similar cause?”


“It is not meant that electricity is life. There are strong analogies
between electricity and magnetism; and yet I do not know that any
one has been hardy enough to assert their absolute identity[40]. I
only mean to prove that Mr. Hunter’s theory is verifiable, by showing
that a subtile substance of a quickly, powerfully mobile nature seems
to pervade everything, and appears to be the life of the world; and
therefore it is probable that a similar substance pervades organized
bodies, and produces similar effects in them.

“The opinions which, in former times, were a justifiable hypothesis,
seem to me now to be converted into a rational theory[41].”


“This general and imperfect sketch of the anatomy of the nervous system
relates only to what may be discovered by our unassisted sight. If by
means of the microscope we endeavour to observe the ultimate nervous
fibres, persons in general are as much at a loss as when, by the same
means, they attempt to trace the ultimate muscular fibres[42].”


“Assuredly, motion does not necessarily imply sensation; it takes place
where no one ever yet imagined there could be sensation. If I put on
the table a basin containing a saturated solution of salt, and threw
into it a single crystal, the act of crystallization would begin from
the point touched, and rapidly and regularly pervade the liquor till
it assumed a solid form. Yet I know I should incur your ridicule if I
suggested the idea that the stimulus of salt had primarily excited the
action, or that its extension was the effect of continuous sympathy.
If, also, I threw a spark amongst gunpowder; what would you think, were
I to represent the explosion as a struggle resentful of injury, or the
noise as the clamorous expression of pain[43]?”



“Thus the odour of a cat, or the effluvia of mutton, the one
imperceptible, the other grateful to the generality of persons, has
caused individuals to fall on the ground as though bereaved of life,
or to have their whole frame agitated by convulsions. Substances which
induce disease in one person or animal, do not induce disease in


“Thinking being inevitable, we ought, as I said, to be solicitous to
think correctly. Opinions are equally the natural result of thought,
and the cause of conduct. If errors of thought terminated in opinions,
they would be of less consequence; but a slight deviation from the
line of rectitude in thought may lead to a most distant and disastrous
aberration from that line in action. I own I cannot readily believe
any one who tells me he has formed no opinion on subjects which must
have engaged and interested his attention. Persons both of sceptical
and credulous characters form opinions, and we have in general some
principal opinion, to which we connect the rest, and to which we make
them subservient; and this has a great influence on all our conduct.
Doubt and uncertainty are so fatiguing to the human mind, by keeping it
in continual action, that it will and must rest somewhere; and if so,
our inquiry ought to be where it may rest most securely and comfortably
to itself, and with most advantage to others.

“In the uncertainty of opinions, wisdom would counsel us to adopt those
which have a tendency to produce beneficial actions.”




“If I may be allowed to express myself allegorically with regard to
our intellectual operations, I would say that the mind chooses for
itself some little spot or district, where it erects a dwelling, which
it furnishes and decorates with the various materials it collects.
Of many apartments contained in it, there is one to which it is most
partial, where it chiefly reposes, and where it sometimes indulges its
visionary fancies. At the same time, it employs itself in cultivating
the surrounding grounds, raising little articles for intellectual
traffic with its neighbours, or perhaps some produce worthy to be
deposited amongst the general stores of human knowledge. Thus my
mind rests at peace in thinking on the subject of life, as it has
been taught by Mr. Hunter; and I am visionary enough to imagine that
if these opinions should become so established as to be generally
admitted by philosophers, that if they once saw reason to believe that
life was something of an invisible and active nature _superadded_ to
organization, they would then see equal reason to believe that mind
might be superadded to life, as life is to structure. They would then,
indeed, still further perceive how mind and matter might reciprocally
operate on each other by means of an intervening substance. Thus,
even, would physiological researches enforce the belief which I say is
natural to man: that, in addition to his bodily frame, he possesses
a sensitive, intelligent, and _independent_ mind—an opinion which
tends in an eminent degree to produce virtuous, honourable, and useful





“No study can surely be so interesting as Physiology. Whilst other
sciences carry us abroad in search of objects, in this we are engaged
at home, and on concerns highly important to us, in inquiring into
the means by which ‘we live, and move, and have our being.’ To those,
however, engaged in the practice of Medicine, the study of Physiology
is indispensable; for it is evident that the nature of the disordered
actions of parts or organs can never be understood or judiciously
counteracted, unless the nature of their healthy actions be previously

“The study of Physiology, however, not only requires that we should
investigate the nature of the various vital processes carried on in
our own bodies, but also that we should compare them with similar
processes in all the varieties of living beings; not only that we
should consider them in a state of natural and healthy action, but also
under all the varying circumstances of disorder and disease. Few indeed
have studied Physiology thus extensively, and none in an equal degree
with Mr. Hunter. Whoever attentively peruses his writings, must, I
think, perceive that he draws his crowds of facts from such different
and remote sources, as to make it extremely difficult to assemble and
arrange them[46].”


“Disorder, which is the effect of faulty actions of _nerves_,
induces disease, which is the consequence of faulty actions of the
_vessels_. There are some who find it difficult to understand how
similar swellings or ulcers may form in various parts of the body
in consequence of general nervous disorder, and are all curable by
appeasing and removing such general disorder. The fact is indisputable.
Such persons are not so much surprised that general nervous disorder
should produce local effects in the nervous and muscular systems;
yet they cannot so well understand how it should locally affect the
vascular system. To me there appears nothing wonderful in such events;
for the local affection is primarily nervous, and the vascular actions
are consequent. Yet it must indeed be granted that there may be other
circumstances leading to the peculiarities of local diseases, with
which, at present, we are unacquainted. Disorder excites to disease,
and when _important organs_ become in a degree diseased, they
will still perform their functions moderately well, _if disorder_
be relieved, which _ought to be the Alpha and Omega of medical

As we have seen, in the early part of our narrative, he was one of
the first to insist on the importance of Comparative Anatomy and
Physiology, and, as we shall have to relate, most active in securing
what has proved so greatly influential to its progress in this country
(the appointment of Professor Owen). Yet he modestly ignores any
positive pretensions which might be imputed to him from his endeavour
to illustrate a Museum dealing so largely with Comparative Anatomy.

“Gratitude to the former of the Museum, and also to the donors to
it, equally demand that its value and excellency should be publicly
acknowledged and displayed, which consideration has goaded me on to
undertake and imperfectly execute a task for which I feel myself not
properly qualified.”

Here follows what is very candid in Abernethy, and honourable to Mr.
Clift, who had very many debtors who were less communicative.

“I cordially acknowledge that I have little acquaintance with the
subject, except what I derived from looking over the preparations
in the Museum, from reading Professor Cuvier’s Lectures, and from
the frank and friendly communications of our highly praiseworthy
conservator, Mr. Clift. Permit me to say, gentlemen, though many know
it already, that Mr. Clift resided with Mr. Hunter, and was taught
by him to exhibit anatomical facts in preparations,—that he does
credit to his excellent instructor,—that he feels the same interest
and zeal that his patron did for the improvement of this department
of science,—and that he possesses the same candour and simplicity of


“I now beg leave to add that there are many who think clearly,
who do not think deeply; and they have greatly the advantage in
expressing themselves, for their thoughts are generally simple and
easy of apprehension. Opinions immediately deduced from any series or
assemblage of facts may be called primary opinions, and they become
types and representatives of the facts from which they are formed,
and, like the facts themselves, admit of assortment, comparison, and
inference; so that from them we deduce ulterior opinions, till at
length, by a kind of intellectual calculation, we obtain some general
total, which in like manner becomes the representative and co-efficient
of all our knowledge, with relation to the subject examined and

“In proportion to the pains we have taken in this algebraical process
of the mind, and our assurance of its correctness, so do we contemplate
the conclusion or consummation of our labours with satisfaction[49].”


“Gentlemen (of the jury), I trust I can prove to your perfect
conviction, by ample and incontrovertible evidence, that my client
(John Hunter) died seized and possessed of very considerable literary
property, the hard-earned gainings of great talent and unparalleled
industry. It is not, however, for the property that I plead; because
already that is secured; it is fenced in; land-marks are set up; it
is registered in public documents. I plead only for the restitution
of a great and accumulated income of reputation derivable from that
property, which, I trust, you will perceive to be justly due, and will
consequently award to my client, and his country[50].”


“Believing that no man will labour in the strenuous and unremitting
manner that Mr. Hunter did, and to the detriment of his own private
interest, without some strong incentive; I have supposed that at an
early period he conceived those notions of life which were confirmed
by his future inquiries and experiments. He began his observations on
the incubated egg, in the year 1755, which must either have suggested
or corroborated all his opinions with regard to the cause of the vital
phenomena. He perceived that, however different in form and faculty,
every creature was nevertheless allied to himself, because it was a
living being; and therefore he became solicitous to inquire how the
vital processes were carried on in all the varieties of animal and even
vegetable existence.”


“In the progress of science, genius with light and airy steps often far
precedes judgment, which proceeds slowly, and either finds or forms
a road along which all may proceed with facility and security; but
the _direction_ of the course of judgment is often suggested, and its
actions are excited and accelerated, by the invocations of preceding



“As Sir H. Davy’s experiments fully prove that electricity may be
superadded to, and that it enters into, the composition of all those
substances we call matter, I felt satisfied with the establishment
of the philosophy of Mr. Hunter’s views, nor thought it necessary to
proceed further, but merely added: ‘It is not meant to be affirmed that
electricity is life.’ I only mean to argue in favour of Mr. Hunter’s
theory, by showing that a subtile substance of a quickly and powerfully
mobile nature seems to pervade everything, and appears to be the life
of the world; and that therefore it is probable a similar substance
pervades organized bodies, and is the life of these bodies. I am
concerned, yet obliged, to detain you by this recapitulation, because
my meaning has been either misunderstood or misrepresented[52].”


“He (Mr. Hunter) told us that life was a great chemist, and, even in a
seemingly quiescent state, had the power of resisting the operations of
external chemical agency, and thereby preventing the decomposition of
those bodies in which it resided. Thus seeds may lie buried far beneath
the surface of the earth for a great length of time without decaying,
but being thrown up, they vegetate. Mr. Hunter showed us that this
chemist, ‘Life,’ had the power of regulating the temperature of the
substances in which it resides[53].”





“The progress of science since Mr. Hunter’s time has wonderfully
manifested that the beam, when dissected by a prism, is not only
separable into seven calorific rays of different refrangibility,
producing the iridescent spectrum, but also into calorific rays
refracted in the greatest degree or intensity beyond the red colour,
and into rays not calorific, refracted in like manner, to the opposite
side of the spectrum beyond the violet colour; and that the calorific
and uncalorific rays produce effects similar to those occasioned by
the two kinds of electricity; and thus afforded additional reasons for
believing that subtile, mobile substances do enter into the composition
of all those bodies which the sun illumines, or its beams can penetrate.

“Late observations induce the belief that even light may be
incorporated in a latent state with animal substances and afterwards
elicited by a kind of spontaneous separation by vital actions, or
by causes that seem to act mechanically on the substance in which
it inheres. All the late discoveries in science seem to realize the
speculations of ancient philosophers, and show that all the changes and
motions which occur in surrounding bodies, as well as those in which we
live, are the effect of subtile and invisible principles existing in
them, or acting on them. Mr. Ellis, who, with such great industry and
intelligence, has collated all the scattered evidences relative to the
production of heat in living bodies, and added so much to the collected
knowledge, seems to think that all the variations of temperature in
them may be accounted for by known chemical processes.

“Here, however, I must observe, that Mr. Hunter’s opinion of life
having the power of regulating temperature was deduced, not only from
his own experiments, related in the ‘Philosophical Transactions,’ but
also from observing, that, in certain _affections of the stomach, the
heat of the body is subject to great vicissitudes, whilst respiration
and circulation remain unaltered_; and also that parts of the body are
subject to similar variations, which appear inexplicable upon any other
supposition than that of _local nervous excitement_, or torpor, or some
similar affections of the vital powers of the part which undergoes such



“It is equally apparent that the belief of the distinct and independent
nature of mind incites us to act rightly from principle; to relieve
distress, to repel aggression, and defend those who are incapable of
protecting themselves; to practise and extol whatever is virtuous,
excellent, and honourable; to shun and condemn whatever is vicious and
base, regardless also of our own personal feelings and interests when
put in competition with our duty[55].”


“There is nothing in the assertions of Drs. Gall and Spurzheim
contradictory to the results of general observation and experience. It
is admitted that the superior intellectual faculties can and ought
to control the inferior propensities. It is admitted that we possess
organs, which, nevertheless, may be inactive from general torpor or
want of education. General observation and experience proclaim that
susceptibility is the chief incentive to action, that it is the source
of genius; and that the character of the man greatly depends on his
education and habits. We educate our faculties; what is at first
accomplished with difficulty, by repetition is easily performed, and
becomes more perfect and established by habit. Trains of perceptions
and thoughts also become firmly concentrated, and occur in succession.
Even our feelings undergo the same kind of education and establishment.
Casual feelings of goodwill by repetition strengthen and produce
lasting friendships; whilst trivial sensations of disgust, in like
manner, may occasion inveterate hatred.”


“Should the result of our general inquiries, or attention to the
subjects proposed to us by Drs. Gall and Spurzheim, induce us to
believe that the peculiarities of our feelings and faculties were the
effects of variety of excitement, transmitted through a diversity
of organization, they would tend to produce mutual forbearance and
toleration. We should perceive how nearly impossible it must be that
any persons should think and feel exactly alike upon any subject. We
should not arrogantly pride ourselves on our own virtue and knowledge,
nor condemn the errors and weakness of others, since they may depend
upon causes which we can neither produce nor readily counteract. The
path of virtue is plain and direct, and its object distinctly before
us; so that no one can miss either, who has resolution enough never
to lose sight of them, by adverting to advantages and allurements
with which he may be presented on the one hand, or the menacings
with which he may be assailed on the other. Yet no one, judging from
his own feelings and powers, can be aware of the kind and degree of
temptation or terror, or the seeming incapacity to resist them, which
may have induced others to deviate. Now, though from the foregoing
considerations I am pleased with the speculations of Drs. Gall and
Spurzheim, I am quite incompetent to give any opinion as to the
probability of what they have suggested; because I see no mode by which
we can with propriety admit or reject their assertions, except by
pursuing the same course of investigations which they themselves have
followed; a task of great labour and difficulty, and one which, for
various reasons, I should feel great repugnance to undertake[56].”

Abernethy used to like very well to talk with Spurzheim, who resided
for some time in this country. One day, Abernethy, half-seriously,
half-humorously said to Spurzheim: “Well, Doctor, where do you place
the organ of common sense?” Spurzheim’s reply certainly sustained the
coincidence of phrenological deductions with those of experience.
“There is no organ,” said he, “for common sense, but it depends on the
equilibrium of the other organs.”


“Therefore, from this least interesting part of anatomy, we derive
the strongest conviction of there being design and contrivance in the
construction of animals. Equal evidences of design and contrivance and
of adaptation of means to ends may be observed in the construction of
the framework, as I may call it, of other animals, as in that of man,
which subject seems to me very happily displayed in Professor Cuvier’s

“It was, however, the comparing the mechanism of the hand and foot
that led Galen, who they say was a sceptic in his youth, to the public
declaration of his opinion that intelligence must have operated in
ordaining the laws by which living beings are constructed. That Galen
was a man of a very superior intellect could readily be proved, were it
necessary. I have often known the passage I allude to made a subject
of reference, but not of quotation, and therefore I recite it on the
present occasion, and particularly because it shows that Galen was
not in the least degree tinctured with superstition. ‘In explaining
these things,’ he says, ‘I esteem myself as composing a solemn hymn
to the great Architect of our bodily frame, in which I think there is
more true piety than in sacrificing whole hecatombs of oxen, or in
burning the most costly perfumes; for, first, I endeavour from His
works to know Him myself, and afterwards by the same means to show
Him to others, to inform them how great is His wisdom, goodness, and


“Those bodies which we call living are chiefly characterized by their
powers of converting surrounding substances into their own nature,
of building up the structure of their own bodies, and repairing the
injuries they may accidentally sustain[59].”


Very important in our view. The objection was very new at that time,
and has made very little way yet. We have already referred to this
subject. Considering the period of these Lectures (nearly forty years
ago), Abernethy’s objections, though cautious, are very sound, and,
for him, very positive. We know that he felt still more strongly.

“Mr. Hunter, whom I should not have believed to be very scrupulous
about inflicting sufferings upon animals, nevertheless censures
Spalanzani for the unmeaning repetition of similar experiments. Having
resolved publicly to express my own opinion with respect to this
subject, I choose the present opportunity to do it, because I believe
Spalanzani to have been one of those who have tortured and destroyed
animals in vain. I do not perceive that in the two principal subjects
which he sought to elucidate, he has added any important fact to our
stock of knowledge; besides, some of his experiments are of a nature
that a good man would have blushed to think of, and a wise man ashamed
to publish, for they prove no fact requiring to be proved, and only
show that the aforesaid Abbé was a filthy-minded fellow.”


“The design of experiments is to interrogate nature; and surely
the inquirer ought to make himself acquainted with the language of
nature, and take care to propose pertinent questions. He ought further
to consider the probable kind of replies that may be made to his
inquiries, and the inferences that may be warranted in drawing from
different responses, so as to be able to determine whether, by the
commission of cruelty, he is likely to obtain adequate instruction.
Indeed, before we make experiments on sensitive beings, we ought
further to consider whether the information we seek may not be
attainable by other means. I am aware of the advantages which have been
derived from such experiments when made by persons of talent, and who
have properly prepared themselves; but I know that these experiments
tend to harden the feelings which often lead to the inconsiderate
performance of them.

“Surely we should endeavour to foster, and not stifle, benevolence,
the best sentiment of our nature, that which is productive of
the greatest gratification both to its possessor and to others.
_Considering the professors in this place as the organs of the Court
of the College_, addressing its members, I feel that I act as becomes
a senior of this institution, whilst admitting the propriety of the
practice under the foregoing restrictions, I, at the same time,
express an earnest hope that the character of an English surgeon may
never be tarnished by the commission of inconsiderate or unnecessary






“To me, however, who confide more in the eye of reason than in that
of sense, and would rather form opinions from analogy than from the
imperfect evidence of sight, it seems too hasty an inference to
conclude that, in the minute animals, there are no vessels nor other
organization because we cannot see them, or that polypes are actually
devoid of vessels, and merely of the structure described, because we
can discern no other. Were it, however, really so, such facts would
then only show with how little and with what various organization life
could accomplish its principal functions of assimilation, formation,
and multiplication. Who has seen the multitudinous distribution of
absorbing vessels, and all the other organization, which doubtless
exists in the vitreous humour of the eye, than which no glass ever
appeared more transparent or more seemingly inorganic[61]? How strange
is it that anatomists, above all other members of the community of
science, should hesitate to admit the existence of what they cannot
discern, since they, more than all the rest, have such constant
assurance of the imperfection and fallibility of sight[62]?”


“Our physiological theories should be adequate to account for all the
vital phenomena both in health _and disorder_, or they can never be
maintained as good theories[63].”




“Chemists have considered the change as contributory to the production
of animal heat, which opinion may, indeed, be true, though the manner
in which it produces such an effect has not, as yet, been explained.
Mr. Hunter, who believed that life had the power of regulating
temperature, _independently of_ respiration, says nothing of that
process as directly contributing to such an effect. He says: ‘Breathing
seems to render life to the blood, and the blood conveys it to every
part of the body,’ yet he believes the blood derives its vitality
also from the food. I am at a loss to know what chemists now think
respecting heat, whether they consider it to be a distinct species of
matter, or mere motion and vibration. Among the curious revolutions
which this age has produced, those of chemical opinions have a fair
claim to distinction. To show which, I may add, that a lady[64], on
her first marriage, was wedded to that scientific champion who first
overthrew phlogiston, and established, in its stead, the empire of
caloric; and after his decease, on her second nuptials, was united to
the man who vainly supposed he had subverted the rule of caloric and
restored the ancient but long-banished dynasty of motion and vibration.
In this state of perplexity, I cannot, with prudence or probable
security, advance one step further than Mr. Hunter has led me. I must
believe respiration to be essential to life, and that life has the
power, by its actions, of maintaining and regulating temperature[65].”



“Those of the medical profession must readily accord with the remark
of Shakspeare, that such affections (disturbed states of the nervous
system) which may well indeed be called ‘master passions,’ sway us
to their mood in what we like or loathe. For we well know that our
patients and ourselves, from disturbance of the nervous functions of
the digestive organs, producing such affections of the brain, may
become irritable, petulant, and violent about trifles, or oppressed,
morose, and desponding. Permit me, however, to add that those of the
medical profession must be equally apprized that when the functions
of the mind are not disturbed by such affections, it displays great
energy of thought, and evidence of established character, even in
death. Have we not lately heard that the last words of Nelson were:
‘Tell Collingwood to bring the fleet to an anchor?’ Shakspeare has
also represented Mercutio continuing to jest, though he was mortally
wounded; the expiring Hotspur thinking of nothing but honour, and the
dying Falstaff cracking his jokes on Bardolph’s nose. I request you
to excuse this digression, which I have been induced to make, from
perceiving that, if such facts were duly attended to, they would
prompt us to a more liberal allowance for each other’s conduct, under
certain circumstances, than we are accustomed to do; and also incite us
to the more active and constant performance of the great business of
human life—the education of the mind; for, according to its knowledge
and dispositions, do we possess the ability of contributing to our own
welfare and comfort, and that of others[66].”

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