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ASTLEY COOPER was the fourth son of the Rev. Dr. Samuel Cooper, of Yarmouth, in the county of Norfolk. His mother was a daughter of Mr. Bransby, of Shottisham, a co-heiress descended from the family of Paston; a lady of considerable intellectual attainments, and the authoress of several works of fiction, which had much popularity in their day. Astley was born at Brooke, in Norfolk, on the 23rd of August, 1768. The classical part of his education was superintended by his father, but does not appear to have extended very much beyond the rudimentary stages of Latin and Greek; nor do we find, at any subsequent part of his life, any reference to classical tastes or acquirements.
According to a well known principle, when he afterwards became celebrated, it was the custom to refer his first attachment to the medical profession to the accidental circumstance of his having had the presence of mind to compress a wounded artery, and thus to save the life of a young friend, imperilled by a serious accident. However this may have been, he was apprenticed, at the age of fifteen years, to a Mr. Turner, a general practitioner, of Yarmouth. His residence with this gentleman was short, as we soon find him availing himself of that which formed the first great facility of his early professional life, and, in all probability, constituted his chief inducement to the particular walk which he adopted.
His uncle, Mr. William Cooper, was at that time one of the Surgeons to Guy's Hospital, and Astley was taken by him into his house, as a pupil. This arrangement, according to the exclusive system, prevailing then as now, of confining the surgical offices of the Hospital to those who have been articled pupils to the Surgeons attached, opened the way to his ultimate appointments of assistant, and then full, Surgeon to Guy's. His uncle appears to have been somewhat old-fashioned in his views; and Astley, in those days, was high-spirited, frolicsome, and idle. The consequence was, that disagreeable discussions became so frequent, as ultimately to lead to a transfer of his indentures to Mr. Cline, at that time the more eminent colleague of Mr. William Cooper. This transfer, which was in all probability brought about by Astley in consequence of Cline's superior reputation, was attended by the best professional results. From that time, he became conspicuously industrious, and seemed to find his chief pleasure in the hospital and dissecting-room; and so rapid and marked was his progress in professional acquirements, that, in 1791, after a short time spent in Edinburgh, he was appointed to give a portion of the anatomical lectures in conjunction with Mr. Cline. From this period, his progress in knowledge, and consequent reputation, was rapid and uninterrupted. His boyhood and youth had been marked by great energy of character and unbounded animal spirits. This seemingly exhaustless energy he now directed, with uninterrupted
London fifty Years since.
industry, to a life-long pursuit of anatomical and surgical knowledge; presenting, to the eye of one who shall scan his whole career, the spectacle of an enthusiasm apparently too ardent to be continuous, persisted in, to the end, with all the regularity and constancy of a law, even after the ordinary motives to exertion were weakened by success.
At this time, no distinct courses of lectures on surgery were given in London, the maxims of the day being included in the anatomical course. Mr. Cooper, however, having gained the sanction of the Surgeons of St. Thomas' and Guy's, commenced a course on surgery, and laid the foundation of the class to which were delivered, in a regular series, for very many years, those lectures which have so far been unrivalled, whether we look to the information they contain, the gracefulness of their delivery, or the popularity which they achieved.
Towards the close of 1791, he married Miss Cook, of Tottenham, a relative of Mr. Cline; and the next year, after a short visit to Paris, during which he attended the lectures of Dessault and Chopart, he commenced practice in Jeffery's Square, St. Mary Axe, where he resided six years.
It was during this period that he laid the foundation of that vast private practice, which continued to increase, throughout his residence in New Broad-street, until, in the year 1805, it had attained an extent and remuneration exceeding any thing known in the records of professional success. Sir Astley has himself, in some slight biographical fragments, indicated some of the favourable circumstances, peculiar to the period, which partly account for this success. At the time referred to,―the end of the last, and the commencement of the present, century,-the city presented a different aspect, at the close of business hours, to what we see at present. The streets of lofty warehouses and large rambling offices, which now make the central parts of the city look so sad in the evening, were then filled with noble houses, in which the merchant-prince and his family were content to live, -often beneath the humble roof of his counting-house. Here he exercised a generous hospitality, and superintended, with patriarchal simplicity, the clerks and servants who ministered to his wealth. At this time, before it became the fashion to imitate the style of the upper classes by a western or suburban residence, perhaps there was a greater concentration of wealth within a small space, in these parts of London, than was ever known in the history of any other commercial city. Under such circumstances, the medical man, who was so fortunate as to gain the confidence of these influential families, had immense advantages, both in the number and compact position of his patients, and in the more liberal scale of remuneration for his services, which the expensive habits of recent times have tended to curtail. Sir Astley states that, for attendance upon the family
of one of these magnates, he received, for several years, upwards of £600 per annum.
In reference to Mr. Cooper's professional position during the latter period of his city residence, his biographer remarks :—
"The peculiar position in which Mr. Cooper stood during his residence in Broad-street, was such as no one seems ever to have exactly filled. It appeared as if he had by some magic gained the confidence of every medical practitioner who had access to him; and this insured an extension of his fame over a very large portion of England. This influence did not arise from his published works, nor from his being a lecturer, nor, indeed, from any public situation which he held, although each of these circumstances had its share in producing the result; but it seemed to originate more from his innate love of his profession, his extreme zeal in all that concerned it, and his honest desire, as well as great power, to communicate his knowledge to another, without, at the same time, exposing the ignorance of his listener on the subject, even to himself. This must be looked upon as one cause why his public character became so much diffused by his professional brethren; for he owed little of his advancement in life to the patronage of Court favour. Another peculiar quality, which proved always a great source of advantage to him, was his thorough confidence in himself, in respect to his professional knowledge, so that, after he had once examined a case, he cared but little who was to give a further surgical opinion upon it. This must inevitably have instilled an equal degree of confidence into those consulting him."
The extended reputation and large practice of Mr. Cooper at this time, led some adventurers to make a surreptitious use of his name, an amusing instance of which may be given. A gang of designing knaves established themselves in a house in Charlotte-street, Blackfriars-road, and were known, by those conversant with their proceedings, as the "Ashley Cooper set.” This appellation was derived from the fact of the advertisements commencing with the name of " Dr. Ashley Cooper" in large letters, whilst the names of the other Doctors, who were represented as his assistants, were printed in smaller type. These names were those of Drs. Munro, Daniells, and Duncan, the word "Company "always terminating the list. Daniells had been a small chemist in Wapping; Munro was an obscure practitioner from Scotland; and Duncan was believed to be the black servantman who played an important part in the proceedings. The plan of operations was, to advertise largely in provincial papers, so as to attract a portion of those persons from the country who were continually coming to town for surgical advice. The "Board," as they styled themselves, sat in consultation during certain specified hours every morning. The black man-servant, who was in livery, had been tutored never to give a direct reply to any question which might be put to him; but to induce any applicant, by evasive answers, to enter the waiting-room. Thus, when asked, "Is Dr. Ashley Cooper at home?" the reply would
The "Ashley Cooper" Impostors.
be either, "Walk in, Sir," or, "The Doctor is at home, Sir;" and so ingeniously was this system carried out, that it would have been difficult for any one to prove that he had been induced to enter the establishment by a direct falsehood, under the impression that he was to see Mr. Astley Cooper, the Surgeon. There were always two or three persons in the waitingroom, sometimes really patients applying for advice; and there was generally one person in league with the party, whose duty it was to remove objections, or to lull any suspicion that might arise in the mind of a visitor, or otherwise prepare him for his appearance before the fraternity. The plan of proceeding was this:
"If it were a simple case, and the patient was not likely to bleed freely,' one of the Doctors only would see him; his case would be heard, quickly dispatched, and the patient dismissed without any further ceremony. If, however, the applicant were found to be a person from the country, and appeared likely to pay a large fee, whether his disorder was simple or not, it was always represented to be very serious, and a statement made that it was necessary to consult the Board.
"The visitor was then ushered into this room: and he suddenly found himself in the midst of a very imposing scene. Around a table, covered with green cloth, on which were carelessly lying heaps of papers and books, were seated three, four, or sometimes five grave-looking persons; the President, the so-called Dr. Ashley Cooper, being distinguished from the rest by being seated in a raised chair at the head of the table. They were all habited in robes and wigs, which last arti. cles of attire had the two-fold effect of giving an importance to their assumed position and character, and, at the same time, of concealing their features, which appeared to be not an unimportant point with them. On entering the room, the visitor was usually directed to a seat by the President, who was the chief organ of communication, the rest of the party being apparently engaged in taking notes of his queries, and the replies of the patient. As soon as the examination and remarks were concluded, the dupe was requested to withdraw, while the consultation was taking place. He was soon afterwards recalled, and the important document, the result of their united wisdom, was then handed to him. The patient, who had perhaps intended only to pay the usual fee of a guinea, struck with awe at all this unexpected ceremony, then, probably, inquired the amount of his fee. The sum mentioned in reply was often exorbitant, frequently more than he had about his person; but he seldom left the house until they had obtained a considerable amount from him."
Shame at their folly, and fear of the laughter of their friends, would often prevent the dupes from publicly exposing the scoundrels. Occasionally, however, some indignant dupe would threaten to expose them; and, in one case, a sum of ten guineas was recovered by a countryman walking in front of the house for two mornings, loudly relating the circumstances to all who would listen. Notwithstanding these occasional drawbacks, the Ashley Cooper Doctors continued to exist for several years.
Biography, as well as History, admits of episode: the variety and relief afforded are often as grateful in the one case as the other; and as it is a rule in this branch of composition, that the narrative introduced should have some obvious relation (though more or less remote) to the main design, it will be admitted that the story of the resurrectionist is not unsuitable to the biography of an eminent surgeon of the age gone by. Such, at least, is evidently the opinion of the author of this Life of Sir Astley Cooper; and we are tempted to give our readers an epitome of this interesting portion of the work. Besides gratifying an innocent curiosity, it may suggest an useful lesson, and afford especially a timely hint to those who sigh for the picturesqueness and simplicity of former days. The same facts which bring into bold relief the former quality, will serve effectually to dissipate our impressions of the latter. Let us look for a moment at some of the dark deeds that not long since took place between "the glimpses of the moon," and rejoice that no such hideous outrage now dares to interrupt the repose of the grave.
In the course of his professional pursuits, Sir Astley came in contact, more perhaps than any of his contemporaries, with the exception of Joshua Brookes, with those outcasts of society, the resurrectionists, or body-snatchers. The necessity for this intercourse with the most degraded and reckless of mankind was most painfully felt; but the credit of English surgery, and the welfare of the whole community through its individual members, were at stake. This was well understood by the Statesmen and Magistracy of the time; and although loud in their expressions of indignation when some discovery which roused the anger of the populace took place, in general they winked at the forbidden, but unavoidable, offence. Had the law, indeed, as it then stood, been strictly enforced, the progress of this country in one grand department of applied science, and that the most intimately connected with the welfare of mankind, would have been effectually checked; and English surgeons must have resorted to the schools of Paris and Vienna for the necessary instruction denied to them in their own country. Fortunately, however, the occupation of the body-snatcher was nearly wholly confined to the period of which we write, or the first quarter of the present century; for previously little Anatomy was taught in England, and subsequently legal provision was made for its due and proper exercise.
The followers of this revolting traffic were almost invariably men of the worst character,-bold, hardy, and of wonderful low cunning. They formed a small community, isolated from all other classes of labourers by the disgusting nature of their employment, and generally working in small companies or partnerships, under the guidance of some man eminent for his