The same earth nourishes

“There is not a more pleasing exercise of the mind than
gratitude. Were there no positive command which enjoined it, nor
any recompense laid up for it hereafter, a generous mind would
indulge in it, for the natural gratification which accompanies

Sir William Blizard was an eminent surgeon and an enthusiastic student
of the profession, as studied in his day. He had a certain bluntness
of manner, which was not unkind neither. He was very straightforward,
which Abernethy liked; and he had nothing of a mercenary disposition,
which Abernethy held in abhorrence. He was a kind of man very likely to
excite in one of Abernethy’s tone of mind many agreeable impressions.
He early perceived the talents, and was probably the first to encourage
the industry, of his distinguished pupil. Enthusiastic himself, he had
the power of communicating a similar feeling to many of his pupils; and
he appears to have contributed one of those impulses to Abernethy which
are from time to time necessary to sustain the pursuit of an arduous

Some men seem to like anatomy for its own sake; examinations of
structure merely, by dissection, or the microscope, have a kind of
intrinsic charm for them. This was not the case with Abernethy. _Mere_
anatomy had few charms for him. He regarded it in its true light, as a
means to an end; as the basis on which he could alone found, not only
the more common or handicraft duties of surgery, but also those higher
views which aim at developing the uses and relations of the various
organs; and in this way to ascertain what the processes of nature are
in the preservation of health and the _conduct of disease_; in short, a
knowledge of what he called physio-pathology.

Sir William, therefore, in exciting Abernethy’s enthusiasm at this
time, was probably of great service. He was thus impelled to pursue the
study of anatomy, which perhaps might otherwise have failed to interest
him sufficiently, whilst his attention was by no means diverted from
the real purposes of that study. On the contrary, he always saw
anatomy, as it were, through a physiological medium. This threw a
pleasure into his anatomical pursuits, and was _one_ of the means by
which, in his own lectures, he contrived to impart an interest to the
driest parts of our studies.

Many years afterwards, he was fond of illustrating the true relations
of anatomy and physiology, and at the same time contrasting the
attractions of the one with the comparatively repulsive requisitions of
the other, by saying, with Dr. Barclay, of Edinburgh, that “he never
would have wedded himself to so ugly a witch (anatomy), but for the
dower she brought him (physiology).” The impressions which he derived
from Sir William Blizard were deep and durable. More than thirty years
after, when he himself was at the zenith of his career, we find his
grateful feeling towards Sir William still glowing warm as ever. He
seems to have considered the expression of it as the most appropriate
opening to the first of the beautiful lectures which he delivered at
the College of Surgeons in 1814. It must have been a moment of no small
gratification to Sir William, who was present, now venerable with age,
to have found that the honourable course of his own younger days, and
the purity and excellence of his precepts, had all been garnered up
in the heart of his grateful and most distinguished pupil. Nor could
the evidence of it be well made more striking than when heralded forth
before an audience composed of the most venerable and experienced, as
well as of the most rising members of the profession; and, to crown the
whole, with an eloquence at once modest and emotional, impressive of
the depth and sincerity with which the eulogium was delivered.

It is difficult to imagine a scene more moving to the master, more
gratifying to the pupil, or more honourable to both. As the style
was very characteristic, we select a few passages. He commences the
lecture by saying, of Sir William Blizard, that “he was my earliest
instructor in anatomy and surgery, and I am greatly indebted to him
for much valuable information. My warmest thanks are also due to him
for the _interest he excited in my mind towards these studies_, and
for his excellent advice. ‘Let your search after truth,’ he would say,
‘be eager and constant. Be wary in admitting propositions to be facts,
before you have submitted them to the strictest examination. If, after
this, you believe them to be true, never disregard or forget _any
one_ of them, however unimportant it may at the time appear. Should
you perceive truths to be important, make them motives of action. Let
them serve as springs to your conduct. If we _neglect to draw such
inferences_, or to act in conformity with them, we fail in essential
duties!'” Again, in remarking how Sir William excited his enthusiasm by
the _beau-idéal_ which he drew of the medical character, Mr. Abernethy
observed: “I cannot tell you how splendid and brilliant he made it
appear; and then he cautioned us _never_ to tarnish its lustre by any
disingenuous conduct, or by anything that bore even the _semblance_
of dishonour.” Abernethy, then proceeding in a strain, warm, yet
apologetic (Sir William being present), at length concluded his public
thanks to his venerable instructor, by saying, “what I have now stated
is a tribute due from me to him; and I pay it on the present occasion
in the _hope_ that the same precepts and motives may have the same
effects on the junior part of my audience as they were accustomed, in
general, to have on the pupils of Sir William Blizard.”[14]

Abernethy then proceeded to advocate similar lofty views of the nature
and duties of our profession in the following manner: “That which
most dignifies man, is the cultivation of those qualities which most
distinguish him from the brute creation. We should indeed seek truth
for its importance, and act as the dictates of reason direct us. By
exercising our minds in the attainment of medical knowledge, we may
improve a science of great public utility. We have need of enthusiasm,
or of some strong incentive, to induce us to spend our nights in study,
and our days in the disgusting and health-destroying duties of the
dissecting-room, or in that careful and distressing observation of
human diseases and infirmities which can alone enable us to alleviate
or remove them; some powerful inducement,” he adds, “exclusive of fame
or emolument (for, unfortunately, a man may attain a considerable
share of reputation and _practice, without being a real student of his
profession_). I place before you the most animating incentive I know
of—that is, the enviable power of being extensively useful to your
fellow-creatures. You will be able to confer that which sick kings
would fondly purchase with their diadems, which wealth cannot command,
nor state nor rank bestow:—to alleviate or remove disease, the most
insupportable of human afflictions; and thereby give health, the most
invaluable of human blessings.”

When Abernethy entered the London Hospital, he soon gave proofs that
Sir William’s lessons were not unfruitful. He was early employed to
prepare the subject for lecture. Anatomy is usually taught by combining
three plans.

In one, the various structures—muscles, vessels, nerves, &c.—are
exposed, by the removal of their covering and connecting-tissues,
and so displayed as to be clear and distinct. This is “dissecting
for lecture;” and it is the duty of the lecturer to describe the
connections and immediate uses of the parts so displayed.

The body is then laid on a clean table, covered with a white cloth,
and everything is ready. There is some difference in these matters in
different hands; but attention to order and cleanliness goes a long way
in facilitating anatomical pursuits. To many there may be much that
is disagreeable in anatomy; but we are persuaded that a coarse and
vulgar inattention to decency has often alone rendered it disgusting or

The other plan is not materially different from the foregoing,
excepting that it is generally done by the anatomical
assistant—technically, the “demonstrator.” The parts, having been
somewhat exposed, are left, as much as is consistent with clearness,
in their natural and _relative_ positions; and the vessels, nerves,
muscles, &c. which have been for the most part described _separately_
by the lecturer, are now “demonstrated” (as the phrase is) _together_.
The relative positions of all parts are thus more especially impressed
on the student. In these “demonstrations” there is the same attention
to covering the body with a cloth, &c. as in the lecture.

Lastly, the pupil is required to make out the parts by dissecting them
himself, with such occasional assistance as may be at first necessary,
and which is given by the demonstrator, who attends in the room for
that purpose.

Now these duties (the lecture only excepted) were early performed by
Abernethy. We may safely infer from this, that he was distinguished by
his industry and zeal in the pursuit of knowledge, and that he began
thus early to cultivate that power of communicating what he knew to
others; in the exercise of which he ultimately acquired a success, a
_curiosa felicitas_, in which he excelled all his contemporaries. That
special qualifications were already discernible, we may infer from the
post he occupied being invariably filled by a pupil of the hospital
to which the school belongs; whereas Mr. Abernethy was an apprentice
of a surgeon of St. Bartholomew’s. On the testimony of a contemporary
and fellow-student, Mr. W. W. Cox, late of Wolverhampton, we learn
that he began to individualize himself very early. That, at the London
Hospital, “he was for the most part reserved, seldom associating with
any of the other students, but sitting in some place or corner by
himself, diligently intent on the business of the lecture.” Sir William
Blizard is known to have felt proud of him, and to have soon indulged
in great expectations from his character and talents.

I have already observed that Abernethy had the advantage of attending
also the Surgical Lectures of Mr. Pott, at St. Bartholomew’s. Mr. Pott
was a gentleman, a scholar, and a good writer, and seems to have been
a spirited and attractive lecturer. In an oration delivered by Sir
William Blizard, in 1815, it is said that “it was difficult to give
an idea of the elegance of his language, the animation of his manner,
or the perceptive force or effect of his truths and his doctrines”—a
character which is by no means inconsistent with Mr. Pott’s more
sustained compositions.

Such opportunities were not lost on Abernethy. He soon became possessed
of what was known in the ordinary business of anatomy and surgery. His
diligence too had afforded him an opportunity of testing those powers
of communicating what he knew, to which I have just alluded. As an
apprentice of a surgeon of Bartholomew’s, his views were directed to
that hospital; and it was not long before the resignation of Mr. Pott,
and the appointment of Sir Charles Blicke, who was assistant surgeon,
to succeed him, opened to Abernethy an arena in which he might further
mature his peculiar aptitude for _teaching_ his profession. This had
been, as we learn from his own testimony, an early object of his
ambition, and one for which he had already begun to educate himself at
the London Hospital.

[Footnote 14: Sir William was a good surgeon and an excellent man. He
was born at Barnes, in Surrey, and practised his profession until his
death, which took place at the advanced age of ninety-three. One of his
eyes was affected with cataract, which was removed by operation when
he was ninety-one. He was enthusiastically fond of his profession, and
was chiefly remarkable for his zealous observance of its honourable
practice, and his indifference to lucre. He died in 1835.]

“Terra salutiferas herbas eademque nocentes
Nutrit, et urticæ proxima sæpe rosa est.”[15]


A large London Hospital is (if we may be excused the Hibernianism, as
Mr. Abernethy used to call it) a large microcosm. There is little in
human nature, of which an observant eye may not here find types or
realities. Hopes and fears, joys and sorrows, solace and suffering,
are here strangely intermingled. General benevolence, with special
exceptions. There is no human good without its shadow of evil; even
the benevolent must take care. Impatient sensibility is much nearer
a heartless indifference than people generally imagine. The rose,
Charity, must take care of the nettle, Temper. The man who is chary or
chafed, in yielding that sympathy which philosophy and feeling require,
must beware lest he degenerate into a brute.

One of the brightest points in Abernethy’s character, was, that,
however he might sometimes forget the courtesy due to his private
patients, he was never unkind to those whom charity had confided to his
care. One morning, leaving home for the hospital, when some one was
desirous of detaining him, he said: “Private patients, if they do not
like me, can go elsewhere; but the poor devils in the hospital I am
bound to take care of.”

But to the hospital. Here we find some that have had the best this
world can give—some who have known little but misery: the many no
doubt lie between; but all come upon the same errand. Disease is a
great leveller. There all flock, as to Addison’s Mountain of Miseries,
to get rid of their respective burthens, or to effect such exchanges as
benevolence may have to offer, or the grave can alone supply. Our large
hospitals have a most efficient “_matériel_;” the accommodations are
extensive, the revenues princely. St. Bartholomew’s, for example, has
a revenue of between twenty and thirty thousand pounds a year, and is
capable of receiving six hundred patients.

As regards what is mechanically or physically necessary to the comfort
of the inmates, the ample appliances of our large hospitals leave
little or nothing to be desired. There is every facility for the
execution of the duties, that convenient space and orderly arrangement
can suggest; in short, everything, in the general sense of the word,
that money can procure. Then there are governors, whose hearts are as
open as their purses, whose names are recorded in gold letters, as the
more recent or current contributors to the funds of the establishment,
and who rejoice in the occasional Saturnalia of venison and turtle; all
duties or customs which may be observed, with the gratifying reflection
that they are taking the thorns out of the feet of the afflicted;
provided only that they do not involve forgetfulness of other duties,
the neglect of which may plant a few in their own. The governors
determine the election of the medical men, to whom the welfare of the
patients and the interests of science are to be entrusted.

We have said that money cannot procure all things, and one of these
is mind—a remark requiring some qualification certainly; but this
we must refer to a subsequent chapter. Minds such as Abernethy’s are
not to be found every day; and, notwithstanding the sumptuous bill
of fare we have already glanced at, there are many things in a large
London Hospital yet to be desired—defects which, though it need no
great penetration to discover, may, for aught we know, require public
attention, a _Government altogether better informed_ as to the actual
defects in medical science, and the plastic hand of power, to supply.

Abernethy was elected assistant surgeon of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital,
July 15th, 1787. Sir Charles Blicke, an assistant surgeon, had been
appointed to the surgeoncy vacant by the resignation of Mr. Pott,
and Abernethy succeeded to the assistant surgeoncy thus vacated. The
election was contested by two or three other candidates; amongst the
rest, by Mr. Heaviside. This gentleman was an eminent surgeon, and a
gentlemanly, facetious, and agreeable companion. He was originally in
the Guards, and practised in London many years with great credit and
respectability. He was fond of science, and expended considerable sums
in the formation of an interesting museum. In the earlier part of his
life, he gave conversaziones, which were attended by great numbers both
of the scientific and fashionable.

He lived in a day when, if a gentleman felt himself insulted, he had
at least the satisfaction of being relieved from his sensibility by
having his brains blown out in a duel—professionally speaking, by a
kind of “operative surgery;” viz. the demolition of the organ in which
the troublesome faculty resided. Mr. Heaviside, in his professional
capacity, is said to have attended more duels than any other surgeon
of his time. This gentleman, albeit not unused to one kind of contest,
retired from that at the hospital; which then lay between Mr. Jones and
Mr. Abernethy—the former polling twenty-nine, the latter fifty-three

This was an important epoch in the life of Abernethy. It is difficult
to adjust the influence which it ultimately exerted, for good or
evil, on his future prospects and happiness, or on his relations to
science. The hospital had thus secured a man of extraordinary talent,
it is true, and in spite of a system which indefinitely narrows the
field of choice; but then the same “system” (which we shall by and
by describe) kept Abernethy, as regards the hospital, for no less a
term than twenty-eight years, in a position which, although it did not
exclude him altogether from the field of observation it afforded, did
much to restrict his cultivation of it. His talents for observation,
nevertheless, and the estimation in which he was soon held, no doubt
enabled him, to a certain extent, to bring many of his views to the
test of practice. Still, as an assistant surgeon, except in the absence
of his chief, he had officially nothing to do; whatever cases he
conducted, were only by sufferance of his senior.

To a man of his ability, this was a false and miserably cramped
position; one, in fact, much better calculated for detecting faults,
than for developing the best mode of amending them. As assistant
surgeon, he had no emolument from the hospital: he had, therefore, a
very reasonable inducement to set about doing that for which he felt
himself especially fitted, and to which he had early directed his
attention—namely, to teach his profession. The event showed that
he had by no means miscalculated his powers. These proved well-nigh
unrivalled. The appointment to St. Bartholomew’s, besides other
advantages, gave him an opportunity of lecturing with the _prestige_
usually afforded by connection with a large hospital. He did not,
however, at first give his lectures at the hospital, but delivered them
in Bartholomew Close.

There was at this time, in fact, no school, properly so called, at St.
Bartholomew’s. Mr. Pott had been accustomed to give about twenty-four
lectures, which, as short practical discourses, were first-rate for
that period; but there were no other lectures, not even on anatomy;
which are essentially the basis of a medical school.

Dr. Marshall, who was a very remarkable man, and no less eminent for
his general ability than for his professional acquirements, was at this
time giving anatomical lectures, at his house, in Bartlett’s Buildings,
Holborn. In a biographical notice of him, in the “Gentleman’s
Magazine,” in which we read that he was giving lectures about the year
1787, it is incidentally remarked, that “in all probability he derived
little support from St. Bartholomew’s Hospital; for that recently an
ingenious young gentleman, Mr. Abernethy, had begun to give lectures in
the neighbourhood.”

Abernethy, who seems to have been always seeking information, certainly
attended some of Marshall’s lectures; because he would occasionally
refer to anecdotes he had heard there. He had thus listened to most
of the best lecturers of his day—Sir William Blizard, Dr. Maclaurin,
Mr. Pott, and Dr. Marshall. To the experience which he had thus
acquired, and with the early intention of applying it, he added a
remarkable natural capacity for communicating his ideas to others. We
thus begin to perceive his _early cultivation_ of that aptitude for
lecturing which no doubt greatly contributed to the excellence which he
ultimately achieved in that mode of instruction.

We desire to impress this feature in his education, because by and by
it will, with other things, assist us in a rather difficult task: that
is, an attempt to analyze the means by which he obtained such a power
over his audience. He thus became a teacher at the age of twenty-three,
at a large hospital where he was about to commence a school, of which
he would be at first the sole support. This necessarily involved a
fearful amount of labour, for an organization, active and energetic,
but by no means of great physical power.

Labour, to be sure, is the stuff that life is made of; but then, in
a fine organization like Abernethy’s, it should be directed with
economy of power, and in application to the highest purposes. Such an
organization should, if possible, have been relieved from the drudgery
which lies within the sphere of more ordinary capacity. Ready as we
are, then, to congratulate the young philosopher, about to display his
powers on a field where he was so successful, still misgivings creep in
which restrain, or at least moderate, our enthusiasm. Unusual ability,
no doubt, allows men to anticipate the order which, as the rule, Nature
seems to have assigned to the pursuits of intellect; but we must not
suffer ourselves to be blinded to the rule, by the frequency of the
exception. Youth is the time for _acquiring_ knowledge; and, although
there is no reason why the fruits may not be imparted to others as fast
as they are gathered, still, when the larger space of a man’s time at
twenty-three is devoted to _teaching_ merely, it may reasonably be
doubted whether it be such a disposition of it as is best calculated
to economise his power, or develop the maximum of its influence, in
_extending_ the science to which it is devoted.

John Hunter declined undertaking to teach anatomy at forty (1768),
because it would have “_engaged his attention too much_ to admit
of that general attention to his profession; to forming habits and
established modes of thinking, which he thought necessary.” In
Abernethy’s after life, we think we saw a good deal of the wear and
tear that early and diversified labour had impressed on his physical
organization. In advancing life, the natural desire for ease, if not
carefully guarded, may not be without its perils; but precocious
labour, stinted rest, and the malaria of large cities, crowded
hospitals, and filthy dissecting rooms, too certainly bring on a train
of evils, not less grave because more distant.

We shall have to revert to these points when, in conclusion, we
consider the variety and importance of his contributions to the science
of his profession, and why they were not still more numerous. The
latter, though perhaps the less grateful, is by no means the least
useful portion of biographical analysis.

Commencing his lectures in Bartholomew Close, they soon seem to have
attracted notice. The anatomical courses, which were always on a
similar plan, were very skilfully framed to interest and instruct the
students. The arrangement of the matter was such, that the dry details
of anatomy were lighted up by a description, not only of the purposes
served by the various parts, but by as much as could be conveniently
included of the diseases or accidents to which they were subject;
and thus the juxtaposition of the structure, function, and diseases,
naturally tended to impress the whole.

Diseases of more general site, and which therefore did not fall
conveniently under discussion in describing any one part, were reserved
for a separate course of lectures. It was in this course that he more
fully developed those general principles on which his reputation more
especially rests. Of his inimitable manner we shall speak hereafter.

He was one of the first who insisted on the great importance of
Comparative Anatomy, in studying the uses of the several parts of the
human body. Were it not for the comparison of the relations of various
parts in different animals, we should be continually the victims of
hypotheses, which the juxtaposition or other characters of organs in
any _one_ animal are constantly suggesting. Here necessity compels the
observance of that rule of inductive philosophy, which seeks not for
the true relation of any one thing in _itself_, but from _universals_,
from uses and application which are common to _other_ things. In
one case nature makes that luminously clear, which is only dimly
shadowed forth in another; and in seeing organs under every conceivable
variety of circumstance, we learn to estimate at their full value
characteristics which are common to and inseparable from all—the only
point whence we can securely deduce their real uses in the animal
economy. Of this, Abernethy early saw and inculcated the advantages.

As it was impossible to combine anything like a comprehensive study of
a vast science in the same course with lectures on human Anatomy, he
was accustomed, at the conclusion of the course, to devote a lecture
or two to select illustrations of this important subject. This he
ultimately relinquished, the universal admission of the fact rendering
it no longer necessary.

We shall have occasion, by and by, to record the circumstances
under which one of the most important steps was taken for securing
the interests of Comparative Anatomy in this country—a proceeding
in a great degree owing to the good sense and personal influence
of Abernethy, and exemplifying, in the admirable fitness of the
individual[16], the penetrative perception of character which
distinguished his early Preceptor in Anatomy.

We have little doubt that we have now entered on the most laborious
part of Abernethy’s life, and that, during this and some succeeding
years, his exertions were so great and unremitting, as to have laid the
foundation of those ailments which, at a comparatively early period of
life, began to embitter its enjoyment, and to strew the onward path
with the elements of decay and suffering.

He lectured himself on anatomy, physiology, and pathology, besides
surgery—subjects which are now usually divided between three or four
teachers. There is abundant evidence that he was an attentive observer
of what was going on in the hospital. He was assiduous in visiting most
places where any information was to be obtained. We find him attending
Mr. Hunter’s lectures, and constantly meditating on what he heard
there; thus seeking opportunities of making himself more and more
familiar with those opinions which, in his view, on most of the points
to _which_ they related, _were_ definite—cautiously deduced—not
always clear, perhaps; but, when understood, truthful.

He endeavoured further to mature an accurate perception of Mr.
Hunter’s views, by seeking private conferences with him; and Hunter
kindly afforded him facilities for so doing. We have Abernethy’s
own acknowledgment of this, coupled with his regret that he could
not more frequently avail himself of them. Indeed, when we consider
that Abernethy lived at this time in St. Mary Axe, or in Mildred’s
Court in the Poultry,—that he was lecturing on the sciences I have
mentioned,—that he was observant of cases at the hospital (a very
timeful occupation),—and consider the distance between these points
and Mr. Hunter’s residence in Leicester Square, or his school in
Windmill Street,—we see there could not be much time to spare. It was
not, however, merely during the time at which he was delivering his
lectures that he was thus actively employed. We have, not unfrequently,
evidence that he was often at the hospital late in the day, in the most
leisure season of the year, when perhaps his senior had, during his
absence in the summer, confided the patients to his care.

We used to get, occasionally, such passages as these in the lectures:
“One summer evening, as I was crossing the Square of the hospital,
a student came running to me,” &c. Very significant of continued
attention during the summer or leisure season—he not being, be it
remembered, other than an assistant-surgeon, and not, therefore,
necessarily having duties at the hospital.

At this period, it was a common practice with him to rise as early as
four in the morning. He would sometimes go away into the country, that
he might read, more free from interruption. He also instituted various
experiments, some of which we shall have shortly to notice, for the
philosophical spirit in which they were conducted. His visit to France
must have been made about this time, when the celebrated Desault was
at the height of his reputation. His stay could not have been long, in
all probability; but we have evidence showing how quickly he perceived,
amidst the success of Desault, the more important defects of the
hospital—the Hôtel Dieu—to which he was _chirurgien-en-chef_, and the
influence exerted by them on his practice.

As we shall be obliged again to mention Desault in connection with a
material item in the catalogue of our obligations to Abernethy, we
postpone for the present any further remarks on that distinguished
French surgeon.

Abernethy now continued actively engaged in the study and teaching
of his profession. The most remarkable circumstance at this time of
his life, and for several years, was his peculiar diffidence—an
unconquerable shyness, a difficulty in commanding at pleasure that
self-possession which was necessary to open his lecture. Everything
connected with his lectures is of importance to those who may be
engaged in this mode of teaching, or who may desire to excel in it. No
man ever attained to excellence more varied or attractive; yet many
years elapsed before he had overcome the difficulty to which I have

An old student, who attended his lectures, not earlier than 1795, told
me that he recollected several occasions on which, before beginning
the lecture, he had left the theatre for a time, to collect himself
sufficiently to begin his discourse. On these occasions, a tumult
of applause seemed only to increase the difficulty. The lecture
once commenced, I have no evidence of his having exhibited further
embarrassment. He seems early to have attained that happy manner
which, though no doubt greatly aided by his peculiar and in some sense
dramatic talent, there is every reason to believe had been carefully
cultivated by study and observation.

His lectures continuing to attract a larger and larger class, the
accommodation became inadequate for the increased number of students.
The governors of St. Bartholomew’s, therefore, in 1790, determined on
building a regular theatre within the hospital. It was completed in
1791, and Abernethy gave his October courses of anatomy, physiology,
and surgery of that year in the new theatre. He had thus become the
founder of the School of St. Bartholomew’s, which, for the approaches
it made towards giving a more scientific phase to the practice of
Surgery, was certainly superior to any other.

In expressing this opinion, we except, of course, John Hunter’s
lectures, for the short time that they were contemporaneous with those
of Mr. Abernethy; John Hunter dying, as we have said, in 1793. As St.
Bartholomew’s Hospital was our own Alma Mater, we may, perhaps, speak
with a fallible partiality; but we think not. We are far from being
blind to the faults which Bartholomew’s has, in common with other
schools; and, we believe, regret as much as anybody can do, that the
arrangements of our hospitals, excellent as in many respects they are,
should still so defectively supply many of the requisitions which the
interests of science demand. Some of these defects we may endeavour to
point out in their proper place. We shall now leave the subject of Mr.
Abernethy and his lectures, and begin to consider some of his earlier
efforts at authorship, sketch the objects he had in view, and the mode
of investigation.

[Footnote 15: “The same earth nourishes both wholesome and noxious
plants, and the nettle is often next the rose.”]

[Footnote 16: Professor Owen.]

“All things are but altered, nothing dies,
And here or there the unbodied spirit flies.”


The most universal character impressed on all created things that sense
allows us to recognize, or philosophical inquiry to demonstrate, is

While nothing is more certain, few things pass less observed; or, when
first announced, more stagger conviction.

An old man sees the yew-tree of his boyish days apparently the same.
Gilpin tells us “eight hundred years is no great age for an oak[17]!”

The cliff which we left “beetling” seems to beetle still; mountains
appear to be everlasting; yet, were seas and rivers to disclose even
a small part of their mission, the Danube or the Volga might tell
of millions of tons of soil carried from higher levels to the Black
Sea and the Caspian. Animals, too, are mighty agents in recording
the mutability of the matter of the universe. Coral Reefs, never
spoken of in smaller terms than miles and fathoms, are the vast ocean
structures of countless millions of animalcules, which serve, as it
were, to link together the two great kingdoms of organic nature—the
animal and vegetable creation. The microscopic geologist informs us of
whole strata, well-nigh entirely composed of the silicified skeletons
of insects. Sir Charles Lyell further impresses on us the reality
of continual change, by referring (and, as it would appear, with
increasing probability) even the stupendous changes demonstrated by
geology to the agency of causes still in operation.

Animals, however, besides the curious structures which they combine to
contribute, are individually undergoing constant change. Man is not
only no exception, but he is a “glaring” example.

The whole human race are in hourly progress of mutation. “In the midst
of life we are in death,” is a truth to which physiology yields its
tribute of illustration. Every moment we are having the old particles
of our bodies silently taken away, and new materials as silently laid
down. Surrounding influences, as air, moisture, temperature, &c. which,
during life, are necessary to existence—the moment the breath leaves
us, proceed to resolve the body into the elements of which it was
composed. In all cases, change may be regarded as the combined result
of two forces: the force acting, and the body acted on—that is to say,
of certain external agents and certain forces inherent in the thing

Animals are no exceptions to this view, and diseases are amongst a
multitude of other exemplifications of it; but, in order to distinguish
these more clearly, it is desirable that we should be familiar with
those more ordinary changes in the body which are constantly going on;
and to some of these were Abernethy’s early investigations directed.

In proceeding to give some account of his works, we must be necessarily
more brief than a scientific analysis would require.

To do him full justice, it would be necessary to republish his
writings, with appropriate commentaries. We shall hope, however, to do
enough to relieve his memory from some of the numerous misconceptions
of his principles and opinions; and to endeavour to show his claims to
the respect and gratitude of posterity.

In everything Abernethy did, we find evidence of the acuteness of his
mind, and his general qualifications for philosophical research.

His lectures had gradually attracted an increasing number of students;
and he seems, about 1791, to have been desirous of prefacing his
lectures on Anatomy by discussing the general composition of Animal

The rapid advance of chemistry had given a great impetus to this kind
of investigation. Abernethy was not only well up in the chemistry
of the day, but also not unskilled in the manipulatory application
of it; and he felt interested in observing the great diversity of
substances which appeared to be made up of similar elements. Boyle has
recorded a vast number of facts, many of which would even now well
repay a thoughtful revision; and Fordyce was certainly one of our most
philosophical physicians.

Boyle had grown vegetables in water and air only, and found they
produced woody fibre. Fordyce found that gold fish, placed under
similar conditions, not only lived, but _grew_. Abernethy’s experiments
had for their object to inquire how far organized bodies (animals and
vegetables) were capable of deriving their various structures from
similar simple elements.

He grew vegetables on flannel, wetted from time to time with distilled
water; and then, analyzing them, compared the results with those of the
analysis of vegetables grown in the ordinary manner.

Other curious experiments consisted in pouring concentrated acids on
vegetable structures, with a view to dissolve any alkali or iron which
they might contain, and then analyzing the vegetables so treated.

He now found, in the burnt vegetable, lime, iron, &c. which, had they
been free to combine, should have been taken up by the acid to which he
had subjected the vegetable before he analyzed it; but he found neither
in the _acid_, whilst both were discovered in the _vegetables_.

He also inquired whether tadpoles and leeches would live when kept only
in distilled water, with the admission of air. For example, he placed
twelve leeches in two gallons of distilled water, They weighed, in
all, twelve scruples. In three months, two had died, but the remaining
ten weighed twelve scruples, showing that they had _grown_. He next
inquired whether vegetables, grown in air and distilled water, would
admit of further conversion into the structure of animals; and, for
this purpose, he fed rabbits on vegetables so reared. His rabbits
appear to have eaten about six plates at a meal of young cabbages thus
reared on flannel wetted with distilled water.

He also experimented on eggs, both before and at the time of incubation.

He wished to ascertain the quantity of lime in the chicken and the egg,
respectively; and whether any of the lime was absorbed from the shell,
which it appeared not to be.

It is curious to observe the time and labour he gave to these
experiments; they evince a very perfect knowledge of the chemistry
necessary; whilst the circumstances calculated to interfere with or
obscure the conclusions from them are judiciously and clearly stated.

Many of his remarks, as well as the ingenious suggestions with which
they are interspersed, exemplify the caution with which he reasoned.
In speaking of his experiments on leeches and tadpoles, many of which
latter had become perfectly developed frogs, he says: “The experiments
which I made on this plan (in vessels of distilled water, covered
with linen) were made in the summer, when to prevent vegetation was
impossible; and, on the other hand, when the vessels were covered over,
even leeches died. In the winter, vegetation might cease; but then the
torpid state of the animals would render the experiments inconclusive.”

He reduced an equal number of eggs and chickens (at the time of
incubation) to ashes; sometimes in crucibles, sometimes in retorts. On
the ashes he poured some distilled water, and ascertained the salts
(as lime, &c.) contained in them. In some experiments, the quantity of
these found in the ashes of the chickens greatly exceeded that found in
the ashes of the eggs. In other experiments, the quantities were equal.

In some of his experiments, after using the best chemical tests for
detecting iron, lime, and the salts, and then washing the residue with
distilled water, he burnt it in a crucible, and found more lime and
iron; on which he makes the following remarks, which suggest what we
apprehend, even at this time, is a very necessary caution:

“This circumstance proves to me that the substances found in the
ashes of burnt animal matter do not formally exist in the mass before
its destruction, but are only new distributions of the same ultimate
particles which, under their former mode of arrangement, made the
animal substance; but which, being driven asunder by the repulsive
power of fire, are left at liberty to form other modifications of
matter.” Page 97. Just what happens when animal matter is burned, in
the formation of ammonia, by the union of the nitrogen and hydrogen
then set free.

He investigated, also, the question of how far the results of the
decomposition of animal matter would be identical, if the analyses
were conducted by heat, or by putrefactive decomposition. In this
experiment, he selected blood; and he found that blood which had been
allowed to putrify yielded _a much larger quantity_ of iron and lime.

The whole of the experiments are very suggestive, and full of thought;
and not only indicate very forward views of the elementary constitution
of organic and inorganic matter, but also moot questions which have
not lost any of their interest by the most recent investigations. He
concludes by observing that he had undertaken these experiments for the
reasons already assigned, and because he had imbibed the idea that the
_ultimate particles of matter were the same_.

He remarks that the progress of chemistry had not been applied, in
every respect, to the best purpose; that men’s views were becoming
_contracted_ by being directed to _individual_ objects; and that they
had ceased to contemplate the beautiful and extensive subject of matter
and its combinations; and he complains that even Fourcroi, Lavoisier,
and Chaptal, either avoid the subject, or do not sufficiently consider
it. We must recollect this was said before Sir H. Davy had made his
splendid discoveries. Abernethy, after observing that he hopes his
experiments will induce others to investigate the subject, concludes

“I know not any thought that, on contemplation, can so delight the mind
with admiration of the simplicity and power evident in the operations
of the Creator, as the consideration that, by different arrangement and
motion of singular atoms, He has produced that variety of substances
found in the world, and which are so conducive to the wants and
gratification of the creatures who inhabit it.”



“Mors sola fatetur
Quantula sint hominum corpuscula.”


Amongst a multitude of examples, which teach us how little we can
infer the importance of anything in nature from its size, or other
impressions which it may convey to mere sense, we might adduce the
wonderful little tubes, certain relations of which were the objects of
this paper. Those constant mutations in animal bodies which are every
moment in progress, are, in great part, due to a very curious order
of vessels, of such extreme minuteness and tenuity, that, being in
the dead animal usually empty and transparent, they are very commonly
invisible, and thus long eluded discovery. There is one situation,
however, in which circumstances combine to expose them to observation.
Transparent though they be, they are here usually rendered visible;
first, by being loaded with a milk-like fluid; and secondly, by being
placed between the folds of a membrane, itself beautifully transparent
(the mesentery). This fluid they have just taken up from the digestive
surfaces on which their mouths open, and they are now carrying it off
to pour it into the blood-vessels, that it may be added to the general
stock of the circulation.

In the situation above mentioned they were at length discovered,
about the commencement of the 17th century. Every thing destined to
support the body with new material, as well as the old, which is to be
taken away, must first be sucked up by the myriads of inconceivably
minute mouths of these vessels, which, from their office, are called
the _absorbents_. These absorbents may therefore be regarded as the
sentinels of the body. They are very sensitive and excitable; but,
besides this, there are placed in the course of their journey, from the
surfaces whence they bring their contents, and the blood-vessels to
which they are carrying them, a number of _douaniers_, or custom-house
officers (the glands, or kernels, as they are popularly called),
whereby, as we have every reason to believe, the fluids they are
importing are subjected to rigid examination; and, if found to be
injurious, to some modification, tending to render them more fit for
admission into the system.

If the contents are very irritating, these vigilant guards—these
kernels—become very painfully affected, and sometimes inflammation is
set up, sufficient even to destroy the part; as if, faithful to their
trust, they perished themselves, rather than give entrance to anything
injurious to the body.

We should never advance, however, in our story, if we were to tell all
the interesting peculiarities of these curious vessels.

When first discovered, and the office assigned to them could no longer
be disputed, the general distribution of them was still doubted. As
it was usual to render them visible by filling them with quicksilver,
so, with a kind of reasoning which has too often characterized mere
anatomical research, when they could not be made visible, it became the
fashion to doubt their existence. Amongst other structures, Bone was
formerly one in regard to which people found a difficulty. How could
such delicate vessels exist in such an apparently dense structure? But
Mr. Abernethy, who, like Bacon, had always opposed mere eye-reasoning,
used to observe, with equal simplicity and good sense, that, for his
part, he could see no more difficulty in an absorbent taking up a
particle of bone, than he could in comprehending how a vessel could
lay it down, which nobody doubted. We now know that bone is not only
supplied with all the vessels which characterize a living structure,
but so liberally, that, in comparison with some other structures of the
body, we regard it as a part of high organization.

Nevertheless, the extreme minuteness and transparency of these
absorbent vessels naturally led persons to regard with considerable
interest any magnified view of them, such as that afforded by
larger animals. In the paper before us, which was published in the
“Philosophical Transactions” for 1793, Mr. Abernethy gives the account
of his examination of the absorbents in a whale; and his object was
to help to determine a question long agitated, whether the glands or
kernels were composed of cells, or whether they were merely multiplied
convolutions of vessels. He selected the absorbents from the situation
to which I have already referred. He threw into the arteries which
carry blood to nourish the gland, a red solution containing wax, which
of course became solid on cooling; and into the veins which return the
blood from all parts, a similar solution, only coloured yellow. He
filled the absorbents with quicksilver.

He found, in filling the absorbents, that wherever the quicksilver
arrived at a gland, there was a hesitation—its course became retarded,
and that this retardation was longest at those glands which were
_nearest the source_ whence the vessels had drawn their contents, viz.
the alimentary canal: as if the surfaces over which the fluid had to
pass were more multiplied where most _necessary_, or, recurring to
our metaphor, as if the more strict _douanier_ had been placed on the
frontier. He says that he found that some of the absorbents went _over_
the glands, whilst others _penetrated_ these bodies. That he found that
the melted wax which he had thrown into the vessels had formed round
nodules of various sizes. He then extended his examination of these
vessels to those of horses and other large animals; and the result of
his investigation was, that it inclined him to the conclusion that the
glands were _not merely_ made up of convolutions of vessels, but were
of _a really cellular structure_.

The paper is very modestly put forth, and he concludes it by observing
that he offers it merely for the facts which it contains, and not as
justifying any _final_ conclusion; but “as all our knowledge of the
absorbents,” he continues, “seems to have been acquired by fragments,
I am anxious to add my mite to our general stock of information on the

It may not be uninteresting to some unprofessional readers to know
that the glands here alluded to are the organs which are so seriously
diseased in those lamentable conditions popularly expressed, I believe,
by the term mesenteric disease, or disease of the mesentery.




“The Universal Cause
Acts to one end, but acts by various laws.”


However paradoxical it may appear, it is not the less true, that
nothing more teachingly impresses the inquirer into nature with the
_actual_ presence of general laws than the _apparent_ exceptions to
them. Finite capacities in dealing with the Infinite must of course
encounter multitudes of facts, the meaning of which they cannot
interpret—portions of the Divine Government, as Butler has said, which
they do not as yet understand.

In philosophical investigations, these are properly regarded as facts
which, in the present state of knowledge, cannot be made to fall under
any of our very limited generalizations.

At one period, departures from the ordinary structure or form in
animals were simply regarded as unintelligible abstractions, and
no more philosophical expression was given to them than “Lusus
Naturæ”—sports of Nature. Progressive science, however, has thrown
considerable light on such phenomena, and invested many of them with a
new interest.

Physiologists have not arrived at the explanation of all such facts;
but much has been done by comparative anatomy to show that many of them
are merely arrests of development, and cases of interference with the
ordinary law.

That, in fact, they show the mutual harmony and connection of the
laws of nature to be such, that the development of any one law implies
the concurrence, so to speak, of some other, just as the successful
incubation of an egg, or any other familiar fact, implies the presence
of certain conditions. We cannot boil a drop of water without the
concurrence of various laws: we say it boils ordinarily at 212° of
Fahrenheit; but how many conditions this involves!

Until understood, how few could have guessed that mechanical pressure
could have so modified the degree of heat necessary, as to exalt it
to more than double, or reduce it to less than half; and again, how
few would have looked for the force which, under common circumstances,
governed the point at which water was thus converted into steam, in
the pressure of the atmosphere; yet so mutually influential are these
conditions—namely, heat and a certain pressure in modifying this
change of form or matter—that some of Faraday’s most interesting
results in experimental chemistry (we allude to his reducing several
gaseous bodies to the liquid form) were obtained by _abstracting_ heat
and increasing pressure.

It is of very great consequence to remember these interferences in
relation to disease, because most diseases may be regarded as examples
of them. Considered as “abstract wholes,” as entities—diseases are
necessarily unintelligible: but when looked at as natural processes
obscured by interferences (if the inquiry be conducted with strict
observance of those principles which are essential in all philosophical
researches), they either at once become intelligible, or, at least, as
open to investigation as any other facts in natural philosophy.

When we investigate the laws of nature with a view to the development
of the sublime objects of natural theology, the concurrence of the
various conditions, necessary to the most ordinary phenomenon, inclose
the most irresistible proofs, from natural evidence, of the Unity of
the Creator.

Regarded in the light of facts which we as yet may not be able to
generalise, the cases here recorded by Abernethy are very interesting;
although it is to be regretted that both cases were bodies brought in
for dissection, in times when the circumstances baffled, if they did
not forbid, any inquiry into the histories of them. It is lamentable to
think of the state of the law with respect to Anatomy at that time.

Any surgeon who was convicted of _mala praxis_, resulting from
ignorance of Anatomy, was severely fined, perhaps ruined; and yet so
entirely unprovided were the profession with any _legitimate_ means of
studying Anatomy, that they could only be obtained by a connivance at
practices the most demoralizing and revolting.

Bodies were, in fact, chiefly obtained by the nightly maraudings of a
set of men, who, uninfluenced alike by the repulsions of instinct or
the terrors of law, made their living by the plunder of grave-yards.

Many a tale of horror, no doubt, might be told on this subject.

Graves were very commonly watched; and severe nocturnal conflicts
occurred, which were conducted in a deadly spirit, not difficult to
imagine. We believe all this has passed away; there is no necessity now
for such revolting horrors. The public began to _think_ for themselves,
the _real remedy_ for abuses. But to our cases. Both were curious; the
one was the body of a boy, who did not appear to have been imperfectly
nourished, but in whom the alimentary canal was found to be less than
one-fourth of its natural length, and in which also the relative length
of its two grand divisions was reversed. The smaller in diameter,
usually very much the longer, was so unnaturally short, as not to
exceed in length more than one half of the more capacious but normally
shorter division of the canal.

The other case presented a no less curious departure from the ordinary
arrangement of parts than a reversed position of the heart; which,
instead of being placed with its point as usual on the left side, was
found to have that part situated on the right. In the natural condition
of things, there is a difference on the two sides of the body, in the
manner in which the large vessels are given off to supply the head and
upper extremities. These differences existed, but were reversed; the
arrangement of vessels ordinarily found on the right, being here on
the left side, and _vice versâ_.

In all this, there would be nothing to prevent the heart from pumping
the blood to all parts in the natural way. But another very singular
arrangement was found in relation to the liver. To the unprofessional
reader we should observe, that usually, whilst all other things are
made, or secreted as we term it, from the purer or arterial blood; in
the _human body_, the Bile is secreted from a vein which enters the
liver for that purpose.

Now, in the case before us, this great vein never entered the liver at
all; so that here the bile was separated, like other animal fluids, by
the arteries. The arteries going to the liver were found much larger
than usual.

Mr. Abernethy examined the bile by submitting it to various tests; and
comparing the results with those obtained from ordinary bile, he found
them to be the same. His remarks are, as usual, ingenious and to the
point, and very characteristic of the penetrative perception with which
he seized on the proximate and practical relations of facts. “When we
see the unusual circumstance,” says he, “of secretion taking place
from a _vein_[18], we are apt to conclude that the properties of such
a secretion require that it should be made from venous blood. But, in
this case, we see that bile could be prepared from _arterial_ blood;
and we are led, therefore, so far to modify our conclusion as to infer,
not that venous blood is _necessary_, but that it can be made to answer
the purpose.”

We must not omit that these remarks are supported by comparative
anatomy. As we descend in the scale of creation from the more
complicated organizations to those which are more simple in their
structure or their relations, the arrangement which I have stated as
usual in man no longer obtains, but the bile is secreted from the
arteries as the other fluids of the animal—showing, in fact, that the
inference drawn by Abernethy was the legitimate conclusion.

Since the discovery of this case, one or two others have been observed;
and the opinions of several eminent men, in relation to the bearing
such cases have on the ordinary sources of bile, are described in
Mr. Kiernan’s interesting paper on the Anatomy and Physiology of the
Liver, in the “Philosophical Transactions.” It is very interesting,
particularly to a professional reader, to peruse that discussion, in
order to estimate Mr. Abernethy’s comparatively simple, ready, and, as
it would seem, correct view of the subject.

One other thing we learn from these cases—the extreme importance of
examining bodies whilst their histories and symptoms can be recorded.
It might have been highly useful to science, had the histories of these
cases been known; and the circumstance should be mentioned, as, in some
measure, tending to counterbalance in the public that not unnatural
but (as regards their real interest) not less to be lamented aversion
to the inspection of the dead—a branch only, it is true, but a very
important one of physiological inquiry. It is the only means of which
we can have the comfort of knowing that, however unable we may have
been to arrest disease, we were at least right in the seat we had
assigned to it; but it is infinitely more valuable in disclosing to us
affections of organs which _had given no sign_, and in thus impressing
on us the necessity of taking a wider range in our investigations, and
comprehending in them all _those injurious influences_ which have, _at
various periods_, acted on the body; for we _thus_ obtain an insight
into the nature of disease which _no mere present symptoms_ can ever
afford us.

The repulsions which the public have to overcome are admitted; but let
us not, in common justice, forget those sacrifices of time, labour,
and too often of health also, which are made by the profession. Nor is
it immaterial to mention that it is a service for which they seldom
receive any remuneration, the only incentive being one which, if it
excite no sympathy, is at least entitled to respect—namely, the desire
to improve their knowledge of their profession. There is no doubt of
the deep and common interest which the public and the profession have
in this question; and it is from that conviction that I have ventured
on these few remarks. Abernethy, when he introduced any subject in his
lectures, was accustomed to say at once all that he intended to remark
on it. I beg, in the foregoing observations, to follow his example,
which I trust the reader will accept as an apology for the digression.

[Footnote 17: “Forest Scenery.”]

[Footnote 18: The ordinary plan in respect to bile in the _human_