In practice

A retrospect of the history of human knowledge offers to our
contemplation few things of deeper interest than the evidence it so
repeatedly affords of some great law which regulates the gradual
development of truth, and determines the Progress of Discovery.

Although knowledge has, at times, appeared to exhibit something of
uniformity in its advances, yet it cannot have escaped the least
observant that, as a whole, the Progress of Science has been marked by
very variable activity—at one time, marvellously rapid; at another,
indefinitely slow; now merged in darkness or obscurity; and now blazing
forth with meridian splendour.

We observe a series of epochs divided by intervals of great apparent
irregularity—intervals which we can neither calculate nor explain; but
which, nevertheless, exhibit a periodicity, which the very irregularity
serves to render striking and impressive.

We may remark, also, a peculiar fitness in the minds of those to whom
the enunciation of truth has been successively entrusted: a fitness,
not merely for the tasks which have been assigned to each, as the
special mission of the individual, but also in the relations of
different minds to each other. This adaptation to ends which individual
minds have unconsciously combined to accomplish, might be illustrated
by many examples, from the earliest records of antiquity, down to
our own times. This would be incompatible with our present purpose.
We will therefore only refer to one or two illustrations, which, as
being familiar, will serve to show what we mean, and to lead us, not
unnaturally, to our more immediate object.

We cannot contemplate men like Bacon, Galileo, and Kepler, for example,
without feeling how auspicious the precession of such minds must have
been to the development of the genius of Newton[1]. Newton was born
the same year that Galileo died. There is something very interesting
and significant too in the peculiar powers of Kepler. Prolific in
suggestion, great in mathematical ability, elaborate in analysis, and
singularly truthful in spirit, Kepler exemplified two things. These,
though very distinct from each other, were both equally instructive;
both alike suggestive of the link he represented in the chain of
progress. In the laws he discovered, he showed the harvest seldom
withheld from the earnest search for truth; but the enormous labour of
the mode in which he conducted his researches, as well as the limits
prescribed to his discoveries, exemplify the evils which, even in a man
of the greatest power, result from proceeding too much on hypothesis.
Now it is interesting to remember that this was coincident with the
dawning of that glorious light, the Inductive philosophy of Bacon, and
shortly succeeded by the splendid generalization of Newton.

In like manner, if we think of the discoveries of Sir Humphrey
Davy—their nature and relations to physiology as well as
chemistry,—we see how much there might have been that was preparatory,
and, to a mind like Davy’s, suggestive, in the investigations of
preceding and contemporaneous philosophers. Priestly had discovered
oxygen gas; Galvani and Volta had shown those remarkable phenomena
which constitute that important branch of knowledge, “Voltaic
electricity;” Berzelius had effected the decomposition of certain salts
by the Voltaic pile; and Lavoisier had even predicted as _probable_
what Davy was destined to demonstrate[3]

In medical science, few things have been more talked of than the
discovery of the circulation of the blood. Now it is curious to observe
that every fact essential to the demonstration of it had been made
out by previous investigators[4] but no one had deduced from them the
discovery of the circulation until Harvey, although it was a conclusion
scarcely more important than obvious.

There is surely something very encouraging in the reflection, that
the advance of knowledge thus results from the accumulated labours of
successive minds. It suggests, that however unequally the honours may
appear to be distributed—however humble, in our eyes, the function of
those who unconsciously prepare the way to great discoveries,—still
it may involve a duty no less important than the more lofty mission
of enunciating them. The importance of a man’s mission can never be
estimated by human judgment. We can never know the mission; still less
its relations to the power, or the temptations by which that power has
been assailed. The most humble may here often approach as nearly to his
duty, as the most gifted may have fallen short of it. Our faculties
cannot penetrate the matter. We often see men placed in positions for
which they appear wholly unfitted—men who seem to be bars to that
progress which we should fancy it their duty to promote. Again, we
observe that almost all great discoveries have to encounter opposition,
persecution, obloquy, or derision; and when they are established, a
host of claimants rise up to dispute the property with the rightful
owner. A man who is in earnest cares little for these things. They may
at times discourage and disappoint him; but they only strengthen his
faith, that a day will come when an unerring justice will accord to
every useful improvement its proper place and distinction.

Humanly speaking, we naturally ascribe discoveries to those who have
practically demonstrated them; but when we examine all the clues
which have been furnished by previous observers, we frequently have
misgivings as to the justice of our decisions. In our admiration of
the successful labour of the recent inquirer, we sometimes forget the
patient industry of the early pioneer. With regard to those laws which
govern the human body, we cannot suppose that the development of them
can be destined to progress on any plan less determined than other
branches of human inquiry. But in all laws of nature we know that
there are interferences which, until explained, serve to obscure or
altogether to conceal the law from our view.

In relation to the Physiological laws, these interferences are very
numerous. 1st. Many are furnished by the physical laws; many more
arise from the connection of the physiological with the moral laws,
and especially from the abuse of (a responsible) volition. These
interferences, however, when their nature is clearly developed,
beautifully illustrate the laws they at first obscured; for the common
characters of subjects, in which the law is usually exemplified, are
brought out into higher relief by the very diversities in the midst of
which they occur. The progress of mankind towards a popular familiarity
with this fact, is necessarily slow; but still we think it plainly
perceptible. An individual life, indeed, however distinguished,
represents a mere point in time; it affords little scope for
considering, much less for estimating, as they occur, the true meaning
of various events, which nevertheless ultimately prove to have had
important influence on the progress of knowledge.

These are world-wide things, which we must survey as the geologist does
the facts concerning which he inquires. We must endeavour to combine,
in one view, facts over which long periods of time may have rolled
away, with such as are still passing around us. This will frequently
suggest designs and relations altogether unobservable by the mere
abstract inquirer. In the course of the following pages, a further
opportunity may occur for a few remarks on such views; the elaborate
discussion of the subject would be altogether beyond our present

It will be our endeavour to point out the position occupied by
Abernethy, in that (as we trust) gradually dawning science, to a
particular phase of which our object and our limits will alike restrict
our attention. We mean that period when Surgery, having approached to
something like a zenith as a mere practical _art_, began to exhibit,
by slow and almost imperceptible degrees, some faint characters of
science—a shadowy commencement of a metamorphose, which we believe
promises to convert (though we fear at a period yet distant) a
monstrous hybrid of mystery and conjecture into the symmetrical beauty
of an Inductive science—a science based on axioms and laws which are
constantly exerting a powerful influence on the social progress and the
health of nations.

In considering Hunter and Abernethy, we shall see not only a remarkable
adaptation for the tasks in which they were respectively engaged,
but also how the peculiar defects of the one were supplied by the
characteristic excellences of the other. We shall see that they
cooperated in laying open clear and definite objects; and that, though
their modes of inquiry were far from fulfilling the requisitions of
an Inductive science, they were eminently calculated to suggest the
convenience, and impress the necessity of it.

We no sooner begin to inquire with clear and definite purpose, than we
are led to the means necessary for the attainment of it.

Abernethy himself, in speaking of the ordinary resources of daily
practice, used to say: “If a man has a clear idea of what he desires to
do, he will seldom fail in selecting the proper means of accomplishing

So, in gathering the materials for building up a science, the first
thing is, to be clear as to those things in which it is deficient. This
once determined, all may lend assistance; and this very division of
labour, when directed with definite purpose, may render even men most
addicted to narrow and partial inquiries, contributors to a great and
common object.

In this way, those blows and discouragements so common in the infancy
of science, which test our motives and try our patience, may prove
tolerable when distributed over the many, instead of proving, as is too
common, depressing or destructive when bearing only on the efforts of
the few.

If we desire to shorten this labour, we need scarcely say there is no
way of doing it but by the adoption of that mode of proceeding to which
every other branch of science owes its present position.

I mean the rigid suspension of all hypotheses, setting to work by
collecting _all_ the facts in relation to the subject, and dealing with
them in strict compliance with the precepts of common sense—or, what
is the same thing, Inductive philosophy.

This will soon show us the just amount of the debt we owe to Hunter
and Abernethy; and, in leading us onwards, instructively point out why
these great men did not farther increase our obligations.

We shall see how the industry and circumspection of the Argus-eyed
Hunter, as Abernethy used to call him, enabled him to unfold a legend
in nature, which he had neither length of days, sufficient opportunity,
nor perhaps aptitude, wholly to decipher; and how far it was developed
into practical usefulness by the penetrative sagacity and happy genius
of Abernethy; which, like light in darkness, guides and sustains
immediate research, and animates and encourages onward inquiry. To
appreciate Abernethy, however, it is necessary that the public should
have correct views at _least_ of the _general_ nature and objects of
Medical Science.

The public have not only a very real interest in acquiring a sound
common-sense view of the objects of medicine and surgery, but a far
deeper interest than it is possible for any one medical man to have,
merely as such, or all medical men put together. This may, for the
moment, appear startling to those who have not been compelled to
consider the subject; but the reader may glean even from this volume,
that so long as life or health, or even money, has value, the remark
is strictly true. From all sides mankind have hitherto imbibed little
but error. They have been taught or induced to believe that the only
objects of medicine and surgery are to prevent or relieve diseases
and accidents by the astute employment of drugs, or by certain adroit
manipulatory or mechanical proceedings, and _par excellence_ by
“operations.” Now here is a great mistake—an idea so far from true,
that nothing can more delusively define, or more entirely conceal, the
higher objects of the science.

The direct contrary of the proposition would be nearer the truth. It
would be _more_ correct to say that the object was to relieve diseases
and accidents by removing all interferences with the reparative powers
of nature; and that this was accomplished more perfectly in proportion
as we were enabled to _dispense_ with the employment of drugs, or the
performance of operations.

The making the lame to walk, the blind to see, and the deaf to hear,
were chosen amongst the appropriate symbols of a Divine Mission; and
we need scarcely observe, that, in the restricted sphere of human
capacity, this is a portion of the mission of every conscientious

We may well, therefore, be dissatisfied with the narrow, not to say
degrading, definition of our duties too generally entertained; but, on
the other hand, if we would realize our claims to these higher views
of our calling, and enlarge the sphere of its practical usefulness,
we should recollect there is only one way of attaining that object;
and that is, by the applied interpretation of those symbols, no less
miraculous, no less certain manifestations of Divine Power, the “Laws
of Nature.” To name a science from something not essential to it, is
like naming a class of animals from some exceptional peculiarity in an
individual. It is as if we would infer the mission of the ocean wave
from the scum sometimes seen on its surface; or the purposes served by
a feather, from the use we make of it in writing, rather than from its
common character of levity and toughness; as if we treated an exception
as a rule, or any other manifest absurdity.

We have no opportunity of entering more fully into this important
distinction of the more lofty objects of our profession, as contrasted
with those usually assigned to it; we must therefore rest satisfied in
having awakened the reader’s attention to the subject, and proceed to
the more ordinary objects of Biographical Memoir.

John Abernethy was born in London, in the parish of St. Stephen’s,
Coleman Street, on the 3rd of April, 1764, exactly one year after
John Hunter settled in London. It is also interesting to remark, that
Abernethy’s first work, his “Surgical and Physiological Essays”—Part
I—was published the same year that Hunter died, 1793; so that, whilst
his birth occurred nearly at the same time as the commencement of the
more sustained investigations of Hunter, his opening contribution to
science was coincident with the close of the labours of his illustrious
friend and predecessor.

The Abernethy family in their origin were possibly Scotch, and formed
one of those numerous inter-migrations between Scotland and the north
of Ireland, which, after lapse of time, frequently render it difficult
to trace the original stock. There seems little doubt they had resided
for some generations in Ireland. John Abernethy, who was the pastor of
a Coleraine congregation, in 1688, was an eminent Protestant dissenting
minister, and the father of one still more distinguished. The son (also
named John) had been for some time pastor of the old congregation
of Antrim, whence he removed to Dublin about the year 1733, to take
charge of the Wood Street, now Strand Street, Dublin. He is the author
of several volumes of sermons, which are not a little remarkable for
clearness of thought, and the earnestness of purpose, with which
they inculcate practical piety. He had a son who was a merchant, who
subsequently removed to London, and traded under the firm of Abernethy
and Donaldson, in Rood Lane, Fenchurch Street. This gentleman married
a lady whose name was Elizabeth Weir, daughter of Henry and Margaret
Weir, of the town of Antrim, and they had two sons and three daughters.

James[5], the elder brother, was also in business as a merchant, and
died about the year 1823. He was a man of considerable talent, spoke
with an accent suggestive of an Irish origin, and was remarkable for
his admiration and critical familiarity with our immortal Shakspeare.
He was probably born before his father left Ireland. John, the second
son, the subject of our Memoir, was, as we have already said, born in
London. The register of his christening at St. Stephen’s is as follows:

{ 1765.
Abernethy { John, son of
{ John and Elizabeth,
{ April, 24.

This register would suggest that he was born a year later than I
have stated. I have, however, preferred 1764, as the year adopted by
his family; for although a man’s birth is an occurrence respecting
the date of which he is not the very best authority, he usually gets
his information from those who are. Besides, it was no uncommon
thing at that time to defer the christening of children for a much
longer period. The education of his early childhood was, most likely,
altogether conducted at home; but it is certain that, while yet very
young, he was sent to the Grammar School at Wolverhampton. Here he
received the principal part of his education; and though the records
are somewhat meagre, yet they tend to show that at an early age he
manifested abilities, both general and peculiar, which were indicative
of no ordinary mind; and which, though they do not necessarily
prefigure the future eminence at which he arrived, were sufficiently
suggestive of the probability that, whatever his career might be, he
would occupy a distinguished position.

[Footnote 1:

Born. Died.
Galileo 1564 1642.
Kepler 1571 1630.
Bacon 1561 1626.
Newton 1642[2] 1727.]

[Footnote 2: The same year that Galileo died.]

[Footnote 3:

Born. Died.
Priestly 1733 1804.
Galvani 1737 1798.
Volta 1745 1826.
Lavoisier 1743 1794.
Crauford 1749 1795.
Hunter 1728 1793.
Davy 1778 1829.]

[Footnote 4: The valvular contrivances in the veins and heart, which
showed that the blood could move in only one direction, had been either
observed, described, or their effects respectively remarked on, by Paul,
Sylvius, Michael Servetus, Realdus Columbus, Andreas Cesalpinus, and
especially by Fabricius ab Aquapendente, of whom Harvey was a pupil.]

[Footnote 5: In a polite letter which I recently received from a
distinguished pupil of Abernethy’s (Dr. Butter, of Plymouth), I find
that James Abernethy died of apoplexy, at Plymouth.]

“Ah, happy hills! ah, pleasing shade!
Ah, fields beloved in vain,
Where once my careless childhood stray’d,
A stranger yet to pain.”


Mankind naturally feel an interest in the boyhood of men of genius;
but it often happens that very little attention is paid to early
indications; and, when observed, it is certain that they are often
interpreted very falsely.

Nothing more emphatically suggests how much we have to learn on this
subject, than the obscurity which so often hangs over the earlier years
of distinguished men. At school, a number of variable organizations
are subjected to very much the same influences; the necessity for
generalization affords little opportunity for individual analysis. The
main road is broad and familiar; there is no time for indulging in
bye-paths, even should the master have the penetration to perceive,
in individual cases, the expediency of such selection. Hence the
quickening of those impulses, on which the development of character
so much depends, is greatly a matter of uncertainty. The moment boys
leave school, on the contrary, this uniformity of external influences
is replaced by an interminable diversity; at home, scarcely two boys
being subjected to exactly the same. Thus, in many instances, it would
be easier to deduce the character of the boy from the man, than to have
predicted the man from the boy. The evidences of the one are present to
us, those of the other may have been entirely unelicited, unobserved,
or forgotten.

We cannot wonder, then, that expectation should have been so often
disappointed in the boy, or that excellences little dreamt of should
have been developed in the man.

Dryden, who, regarded in the triple capacity of poet, prose-writer,
and critic, is hardly second to any English author, took no honour at
the University. Swift, perhaps our best writer of pure English, whose
talents proved scarcely less versatile and extraordinary than they
had appeared restricted and deficient, was “plucked” for his degree,
in Dublin, and only obtained his recommendation to Oxford “_speciali
gratia_” as it was termed. The phrase, however, being obviously
equivocal, and used only in the bad sense at Dublin, was, fortunately
for Swift, interpreted in a good sense at Oxford—a misapprehension
which Swift, of course, was at no pains to remove.

Sheridan was remarkable for his readiness, his invention, and his
wit; as a writer, he showed considerable powers of sustained thought
also. He had an habitual eloquence, and, on one occasion, delivered
an oration before one of the most distinguished audiences that the
world ever saw[6], with an effect that seems to have rivalled the most
successful efforts of Cicero, or even Demosthenes. Yet he had shown so
little capacity as a boy, that he was presented to a tutor by his own
mother with the complimentary accompaniment that he was an incorrigible

Some boys live on encouragement, others seem to work best “up stream.”
Niebuhr, the traveller, the father of a son no less illustrious, with
anything but an originally acute mind, seems to have overcome every
disadvantage which the almost constant absence of opportunity could
combine. Those who are curious in such matters might easily multiply
examples of the foregoing description, and add others where—as in
the case of Galileo, Newton, Wren, and many others—the predictions
suggested by early physical organization proved as erroneous as the
intellectual indications to which we have just adverted.

The truth is, we have a great deal to learn on the subject of mind,
although there is no want of materials for instruction. Medicine and
surgery are not the only branches of knowledge which require the aid of
strictly inductive inquiry. In all, the materials (facts) are abundant.

In Abernethy there was a polarity of character, an individuality,
a positiveness of type, which would have made the boy a tolerably
intelligible outline of the future man. The evidence is imperfect; it
is chiefly drawn from the recollections of a living few, who, though
living, have become the men of former days; but still the evidence all
inclines one way.

We can quite imagine a little boy, “careless in his dress, not
slovenly,” with his hands in his pockets, some morning about the year
1774, standing under the sunny side of the wall, at Wolverhampton
Grammar School[7]; his pockets containing, perhaps, a few shillings,
some halfpence, and a knife with the point broken, a pencil, together
with a tolerably accurate sketch of “Old Robertson’s” wig. This
article, as shown in an accredited portrait[8] now lying before us,
was one of those enormous bygone bushes which represented a sort of
impenetrable fence round the cranium, as if to guard the precious
material within. The said boy just finishing a story to his laughing
companions, though no sign of fun appeared in him, save a little curl
of the lip, and a smile which would creep out of the corner of his
eye in spite of him. I have had the good fortune to find no less than
three schoolfellows of Abernethy, who are still living: John Fowler,
Esq. of Datchet, a gentleman whom I have had the pleasure of knowing
for many years, and who enjoys, in honourable retirement at his country
seat, at the age of eighty-two, the perfect possession of all his
faculties; William Thacker[9], Esq. of Muchall, about two miles from
Wolverhampton, who is in his eighty-fifth year; T. Tummins, Esq. of
King Street, Wolverhampton, who is in his eighty-seventh year. To
these gentlemen, and to J. Wynn, Esq. also of Wolverhampton, I am
principally indebted for the few reminiscences I have been able to
collect of the boyish days of Abernethy.

The information which I gained from Mr. Fowler, he gave me himself; he
also kindly procured me a long letter from Mr. Wynn. The reminiscences
of Mr. Tummins and Mr. Thacker, I have obtained through the very
courteous and kind assistance of the Rev. W. White, the late[10]
distinguished head master of the Wolverhampton School.

To all of these gentlemen I cannot too strongly express my thanks,
for the prompt and kind manner in which they have replied to all the
enquiries which have been addressed to them. The following are the
principal facts which their letters contain, or the conclusions they
justify. Abernethy must have gone to Wolverhampton when very young,
probably; I should say certainly before 1774. He was brought by Dr.
Robertson from London, with another pupil, “his friend Thomas;” and
the “two Londoners” boarded with Dr. Robertson. When Mr. Fowler went
there in 1778, Abernethy was high up in the school, and ultimately got
to the head of the senior form. He must have left Wolverhampton in all
probability not later than 1778, because Dr. Robertson resigned the
head mastership in that year; and we know that in the following (1779),
when he was fifteen, Abernethy was apprenticed to Sir Charles Blicke.

Mr. Thacker says he was very studious, clever, a good scholar,
humorous, but very passionate. Mr. Tummins, Mr. Thacker says, knew
Abernethy well. Abernethy used to go and dine frequently with Mr.
Tummins’s father. Mr. Tummins says “Abernethy was a sharp boy, a very
sharp boy, and a very passionate one too. Dr. Robertson,” he says, “was
also a very passionate man.”

One day, Abernethy had to “do” some Greek Testament; and it appeared
that he set off very glibly, having a “crib” in the shape of a Greek
Testament, with a Latin version on the other side. The old Doctor,
suspecting the case, discovered the crib, and the pupil was instantly
“levelled with the earth.” This _fortiter in re_ plan of carrying the
intellect by a _coup-de-main_, has, as the late head master observed,
been replaced by more refined modes of proceeding. The more energetic
plan was (however coarse and objectionable) not always unsuccessful
in implanting a certain quantity of Latin and Greek. Abernethy was a
very fair Latin scholar, and he certainly had not, at one period, a bad
knowledge of Greek also.

There are, however, many other things to be learnt besides Latin and
Greek; and it is probable that the more measured reliance on such
violent appeals, which characterizes modern education, might have
been better suited to Abernethy. To a boy who was naturally shy, and
certainly passionate, such mechanical illustrations of his duty were
likely to augment shyness into distrust, and to exacerbate an excitable
_temper_ into an irritable _disposition_.

Abernethy, in chatting over matters, was accustomed jocularly to
observe that, for his part, he thought his mind had, on some subjects,
what he called a “_punctum saturationis_;” so that “if you put anything
more into his head, you pushed something out.” If so, we may readily
conceive that this plan of forcing in the Greek, might have forced out
an equivalent quantity of patience or self-possession. It is difficult
to imagine anything less appropriate to a disposition like Abernethy’s
than the discipline in question. It was, in fact, calculated to create
those very infirmities of character which it is the object of education
to correct or remove.

It seems that neither writing nor arithmetic were taught in the
school; and “Tummins and Abernethy” used to go to learn these matters
at the school of a Miss Ready, in King Street, Wolverhampton. This
lady appears to have had, like Dr. Robertson, a high opinion of what
the profession usually term “local applications” in the conduct of
education. Many years afterwards, she called upon Mr. Abernethy. He was
then in full practice in London. He received her with the greatest
kindness, begged her to come and dine with him as often as she could
while she stayed in London; and, introducing her to Mrs. Abernethy,
said: “I beg to introduce to you a lady who has boxed my years many a

Had Miss Ready, however, heard us call in question the necessity
of this association of boxing ears and quill-driving, she would
probably have retorted on us, that few men wrote so good a hand as
John Abernethy. It is certain that, _brusque_ as the discipline might
have been, or ill-suited to the disposition of Abernethy, it did not
interfere with the happiness of his schoolboy life. He always looked
back to his days at Wolverhampton with peculiar pleasure, and seemed to
regard every association with the place with affectionate remembrance.

Mr. Wynn observes, in his letter: “About twenty years ago I accompanied
a patient to Mr. Abernethy. After prescribing, he said, ‘let me see
you again in about a week,’ ‘We cannot, for we are returning into the
country.’ ‘Why, where do you live?’ ‘Wolverhampton.’ ‘Wolverhampton?
Why, I went to school there. Come, sit down, and tell me who’s alive
and who’s dead.’ After running over the names of some of the old
families, their health, circumstances, &c. he wished us good morning,
saying, ‘Ah! I cannot forget Wolverhampton!'”

Mr. Thacker’s note I subjoin, written in a good firm hand, at

“Muchall, near Wolverhampton,
“May 17, 1852.


“As a boy, I remember John Abernethy and William Thomas coming
from London to board with, and as scholars to, Dr. Robertson, the
head master of the Wolverhampton School, in which there were two
masters, both clergymen. We were formed into several classes, in
which John Abernethy, William Thomas, Walter Acton Mosely, and
myself, formed one. Abernethy took the head or top of the class;
but the boys used to change places in the classes according to
their proficiency; but I do not recollect that Abernethy ever took
a third place in the class. So also in his sports, he usually made
a strong side, for he was remarkably quick and active, and soon
learned a new game. He had but one fault that I knew of—he was
rather hasty and impetuous in his manner, but it was soon over and

“The ‘Doctor,’ as we used to call him (Robertson), had a daughter
grown up, and she used to hear the boarders in the house read
plays before her father, in which, in particular passages, she
showed where the emphasis should be laid, and how to pronounce the
same properly; this occasioned the use of the play of ‘Cato,’ and
originated the boys’ performance of that play in the school-room
before their fathers and friends. I do not remember the part that
Abernethy took in that play. I have applied to Mr. Tummins of
Wolverhampton, but his memory does not supply information. He knew
Mr. Abernethy well.

“If I recollect any others of my schoolfellows who knew him, I will
apply to them for information, and communicate the same to you

“I am, Sir,
“Your obedient servant,

“To George Macilwain, Esq.”

We learn from another reminiscent, that in the play at Wolverhampton
Abernethy took a “principal part.” He certainly had a good deal of
dramatic talent, in the highest sense of the word; and, as will be seen
in the sequel, could light up a story with rich humour, or clothe it
with pathos, as suited the occasion, with equal facility. Scanty as
they are, there is much in these school reminiscences significant of
his future character.

As we have observed, Abernethy left Wolverhampton in 1778. He was
then head of the school, a quick, clever boy, and more that an
average scholar. He returned to London, that world of hopes, fears,
and anxieties; that spacious arena, on which all are desirous of
entering as competitors who are ambitious of professional or commercial

[Footnote 6: We allude to his first speech on the trial of Warren

[Footnote 7: Wolverhampton School, founded by Sir Stephen Jermyn,
Alderman and Knight of the City of London, in the reign of Henry
VIII, for the “Instruction of youth in morals and learning.” Many
distinguished men were educated at the School; as Abernethy; Mr. Tork,
fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge; Sir William Congreve; and others.]

[Footnote 8: Kindly sent us by Mr. Fowler, of Datchet.]

[Footnote 9: This gentleman died last year. He had retired to his seat
at Muchall, from Wolverhampton, where he had practised as a solicitor
of great eminence and respectability.]

[Footnote 10: Since the last edition, I have to regret the death of
this gentleman. He was an excellent man, a good mathematician, and an
accomplished scholar. He graduated at Cambridge, and took honors in

“Nunquam ita quisquam bene subductâ ratione ad vitam fuit
Quin res, ætas, usus, semper aliquid apportet novi
Aliquid moneat; ut illâ quæ te scire credas, nescias:
Et quæ tibi putâris primâ, in experiundo repudias.”

TER. AD. A. 5, SC. 4.

“Never did man lay down so fair a plan,
So wise a rule of life, but fortune, age,
Or long experience made some change in it,
And taught him that those things he thought he knew,
He did not know, and what he held as best
In practice, he threw by.”


Circumstances, in themselves apparently unimportant, often determine
the selection of a profession. Few boys can do exactly what they
please, and the _pros_ and _cons_ are seldom placed before them in
a way to assist them in determining the just value of the reasons
on which their choice may have proceeded. They are not, indeed,
unfrequently dealt with as if, whilst not incompetent to make choice of
a profession, they were held incapable of weighing the circumstances by
which alone such choice could be judiciously directed. The absurdity
of this appears, when we think a moment of what it involves, which is
nothing less than expecting them to do what is impossible; viz. to
form an opinion on a subject when the main facts in relation to it are
withheld from them. Be this as it may, every day shows us that men are
too frequently dissatisfied with the profession which they follow. The
question of our boyhood recollections—

“Qui fit Mæcenas ut nemo quam sibi sortem,
Seu ratio dederit seu fors objecerit, illâ,
Contentus vivat?”[11]

is just as applicable as ever; and although human nature has almost
everything ascribed to its natural infirmities, yet it appears quite as
sensible, and not a whit less humble, to conclude, that paths chosen
without consideration naturally lead to disappointment. The evil, like
most others, carries with it the elements of self correction.

Parents are slow to encourage their children to select paths which they
themselves have trodden with regret. This tends to distribute their
professions to other families. Mutual interchanges of this kind serve
to protect the interests of society, by, in some degree, limiting the
number of cases in which men have failed to select the pursuits best
adapted to them.

In almost all pursuits of life, success is determined, much more than
many are disposed to imagine, by the homely qualities of steadiness and
industry. We are apt—and sometimes not improperly—to ascribe peculiar
_excellence_ to peculiar powers. Yet the more insight we obtain into
the histories of men, the more we perceive how constantly the most
brilliant have been aided by the more homely qualifications to which we
have adverted.

No doubt some minds are so constituted as to be moderately certain
of success or distinction in almost any pursuit to which they might
have been directed; and we are disposed to think that Abernethy’s was
a mind of that order; but there is abundant evidence to show that
his talents were at least equalled by his industry. One paper of
his, which contains a beautiful and discriminative adjustment of a
difficult point of practice in Injuries of the Head—which contains no
intrinsic evidence of such industry—was not published until after he
had attended to every serious injury of the head in a large hospital
for almost twenty years; besides examining the bodies of all the
fatal cases. Nor can we estimate this industry properly, without
recollecting that all this time he was only an _assistant surgeon_,
whose duties, for the _most_ part, neither required nor _permitted_ him
to do more than to _observe_ the treatment; and that, therefore, the
whole of this industry was simply in the character of a student of his
profession[12]. All biography is full of this kind of evidence; and
art, as well as science, furnishes its contribution. Who could have
imagined that the peculiar, chaste composition, the easy and graceful
touch of Sir Augustus Callcott, could have owed so much to industry
as it undoubtedly must have done? It is known, for example, that he
made no less than forty different sketches in the composition of one
picture. We allude to his “Rochester.” Had Abernethy been allowed to
choose his profession, he, no doubt, would have selected the Bar. It
is impossible to reflect on the various powers he evinced, without
feeling that, had he followed the law, he would have arrived at a very
distinguished position. “Had my father let me be a lawyer,” he would
say, “I should have known every Act of Parliament by heart.” This,
though no doubt intended as a mere figure of speech, was not so far
from possibility as might be imagined, for it referred to one of his
most striking characteristics; viz. a memory alike marvellously ready,
capacious, and retentive—qualities common enough separately, but rare
in powerful combination.

We may have opportunities by and by, perhaps, of further illustrating
it. We will give one anecdote here. A gentleman, dining with him on a
birthday of Mrs. Abernethy’s, had composed a long copy of verses in
honour of the occasion, which he repeated to the family circle after
dinner. “Ah!” said Abernethy, smiling, “that is a good joke, now, your
pretending to have written those verses.” His friend simply rejoined,
that, such as they were, they were certainly his own. After a little
good-natured bantering, his friend began to evince something like
annoyance at Abernethy’s apparent incredulity; so, thinking it was
time to finish the joke, “Why,” said Abernethy, “I know those verses
very well, and could say them by heart[13].” His friend declared it
to be impossible; when Abernethy immediately repeated them throughout
correctly, and with the greatest apparent ease. To return. However
useful this quality might have been at the Bar, Abernethy was destined
to another course of life—a pathway more in need, perhaps, of that
light which his higher qualifications enabled him to throw over it,
and which “his position” “in time” afforded him an opportunity of
doing just when it seemed most required. He probably thus became, both
during life and prospectively, the instrument of greater good to his
fellow-creatures than he would have been in any other station whatever.

I have not been able to discover what the particular circumstances were
which determined his choice of the medical profession. It is probable
that they were not very peculiar. A boy thwarted in his choice of a
profession, is generally somewhat indifferent as to the course which
is next presented to him; besides, as his views would not have been
opposed but for some good reason, a warm and affectionate disposition
would induce him to favour any suggestion from his parents. Sir Charles
Blicke was a surgeon in large practice; he lived at that time in
Mildred’s Court, and Abernethy’s father was a near neighbour, probably
in Coleman Street.

Abernethy had shown himself a clever boy, a good scholar; and he was
at the top of Wolverhampton School before he was fifteen. Sir Charles
Blicke was quick-sighted, and would easily discover that Abernethy was
a “sharp boy.” All that Abernethy probably knew of Sir Charles, was,
that he rode about in his carriage, saw a good many people, and took a
good many fees, all of which, though perhaps presenting no particular
attractions for Abernethy, made a _primâ facie_ case, which was not
repulsive. Accordingly, in the year 1779, being then fifteen years of
age, he became bound an apprentice to Sir Charles, and, probably, for
about five years.

This first step, this apprenticing, has a questionable tendency as
regards the interests of the public and the profession. It exerts,
also, a considerable influence on the character and disposition of
the boy, which we must by and by consider. It is a mode of proceeding
which, we fear, has done not a little to impede the progress of
surgery as a science, and to maintain that handicraft idea of it
suggested by the etymology of the word. Where one man strikes out a
new path, thousands follow the beaten track. A boy, with his mind
ill-prepared, having no _definite_ ideas of the nature and objects of
scientific inquiries, and almost certainly uninstructed as to the rules
to be observed in conducting them—knowing neither any distinction
between an art and a science—a boy thus conditioned is bound for a
certain number of _years_! to a man of whom he knows little, and to
a profession of which he knows nothing. He takes his ideas and his
tone from his master; or, if these be repulsive to him, he _probably
adopts an opposite extreme_. If the master practise his profession
merely as an art, he furnishes his pupil with little more than a string
of conventionalisms; of which, if the pupil has talent enough to do
anything for himself, he is tolerably certain to have a great deal to

We believe the system is in course of improvement; it is high time it
was put an end to altogether. Apprenticeships might not have been an
inauspicious mode of going to work in former times, when there existed
barber-surgeons. This alliance of surgery and shaving, to say nothing
of the numerous other qualifications with which they were sometimes
associated, might conceivably enough have furnished some pretext for
apprenticeships; since Dickey Gossip’s definition of

“Shaving and tooth-drawing,
Bleeding, cabbaging, and sawing,”

was by no means always sufficiently comprehensive to include the
multifarious accomplishments of “the doctor.” I have myself seen,
in a distant part of this island, within twenty-five years, chemist,
druggist, surgeon, apothecary, and the significant &c. followed by the
hatter, hosier, and linen-draper, in one establishment; but as we shall
have to discuss this subject more fully in relation to Abernethy in
another place, we may proceed.

Sir Charles Blicke had a large and lucrative practice. He had the
character of taking care to be well remunerated for his services. He
amassed a considerable fortune; but we incline to think that the ideas
of the profession which Abernethy derived from his experience of his
apprenticeship were not very favourable. The astute, business-like mode
of carrying on the profession, which seems to have characterized Sir
Charles Blicke’s practice, could have had few charms for Abernethy.
Mere money-making had never at any time much attraction for him, and,
at that period of his life, probably none at all; whilst the measured
pretensions of surgery to anything like a science could hardly have
been, at times, otherwise than repulsive.

The tone in which he usually spoke of Sir Charles’s practice did not
convey a very favourable idea of the impression which it had left on
him. In relating a case, he would say: “Sir Charles was at his house
in the country, where he was always on the look out for patients.” On
another occasion, speaking of patients becoming faint under peculiar
circumstances, he observed: “When I was an apprentice, my master used
to say: ‘Oh, Sir! you are faint; pray drink some of this water.’ And
what do you think was the effect of his putting cold water into a man’s
stomach under these circumstances? Why, of course, that it was often
rejected in his face.”

Sir Charles’s manipulatory and operative proceedings seem, however, to
have represented a tolerably adroit adoption of the prevailing modes of
practice; while his medical surgery consisted chiefly of the empirical
employment of such remedies as he had found most frequently successful,
or, at all events, somehow or other associated with a successful issue;
with the usual absence of any investigation of the cause of either
success or failure. By a mind like Abernethy’s, this sort of routine
would be very soon acquired, and, in a short time, estimated at its
real value. Still, while a clear head is all that is necessary to the
reception of what may be positive and truthful, it requires a vivid
perception and a cultivated understanding to detect error. Many things,
however, would creep out in Abernethy’s lectures, showing that, young
as he was, even during his apprenticeship, he was not only a real
student, but he had begun to think for himself.

He mentions a case of “Locked-jaw,” that occurred as early as 1780 (the
first year of his apprenticeship), which he appears to have noted with
great accuracy. He mentions the medicine that was given to the man, the
unusually large doses, and, lastly, the enormous quantity of it which
was found in the stomach after death. It was opium, and amounted to
many drachms.

We also find him engaged in inquiries involving much more extended
views than were in that day _generally_ associated with the study of
_surgery_. He very early participated in those researches which had for
their object to determine the relation of the digestive functions to
one of the most recondite affections of an extremely important organ
(the kidney).

“When I was a boy,” said he, “I half ruined myself in buying oranges
and other things, to ascertain the effects of different kinds of diet
in this disease.”

The same researches show how early also he began to perceive the
importance of chemistry in investigating the functions of different
organs, and in _aiding_, generally, physiological researches. We have
heard a contemporary and a lecturer on chemistry attest Abernethy’s
proficiency in that science. As his investigations proceeded, he
had the still higher merit of taking _just and sober views_ of the
relations of chemistry to physiological science.

We mean that whilst he fully recognized the importance of it, he
entirely avoided that _exclusive_ reliance on it which is too often
created by some of the more striking demonstrations of chemical
science; that one—idea—tendency, which unconsciously wrests it to the
solution of phenomena which, in the _present state_ of our knowledge,
it is wholly inadequate to explain. We have alluded to the foregoing
facts touching the impressions derived from his apprenticeship, and
his early disposition for philosophical research, because both will be
found to have relations to his subsequent labours and peculiarities.
Diligent as he was, we suspect he found, during his apprenticeship,
little of those attractions which make labour and industry sources of
happiness and pleasure.

As a matter of course, he would have been allowed to attend any
lectures which were given at the hospital to which Sir Charles Blicke
was surgeon (St. Bartholomew’s), and this would bring him in contact
with Mr. Pott, who delivered a certain number of surgical lectures

There were no _courses_ of anatomical lectures given at St.
Bartholomew’s at that period; but anatomical lectures were delivered
regularly at the London Hospital, by Dr. Maclaurin and Sir William
Blizard, and afterwards by Sir William Blizard alone. As Sir Charles
Blicke lived in Mildred’s Court and subsequently in Billiter Square,
Abernethy would be about equidistant from the two hospitals, both of
which he attended. We incline to think that it was in attending these
lectures, and perhaps especially those of Sir William Blizard, that he
first found those awakening impulses which excited in him a real love
for his profession.

It was about this time, we think, that he began to have more enlarged
ideas of the nature and objects of surgical science; a state of mind
calculated to enable him to thoroughly understand and appreciate Mr.
Hunter, and to deduce from the principles which he was shadowing forth,
those relations and consequences which we shall endeavour popularly to
explain; principles which, though originally directed to the treatment
of so-called surgical maladies, were found equally to affect the
practice of medicine.

[Footnote 11: “How happens it, Mæcenas, that no one is content with his
condition, whether reason gave it him, or chance threw it in his way?”]

[Footnote 12: The assistant-surgeons at that period having no
_in_-patients under their care, except in the absence, or by
permission, of their chiefs.]

[Footnote 13: A public journalist was inclined to give this anecdote
to another person. We then stated that we had it on the authority of a
gentleman who was present. Such power of memory, though _rare_, is not
_singular_; other examples have fallen within our own observation.]

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