Freak Anatomist

John Mullan

  • The Giant, O'Brien by Hilary Mantel
    Fourth Estate, 211 pp, £14.99, September 1998, ISBN 1 85702 884 8

In the Council Room of the Royal College of Surgeons hangs the portrait by Joshua Reynolds of the 18th-century surgeon and anatomist John Hunter. It has been much darkened by the bitumen content of Reynolds’s paint, and restoration work in the Fifties has not been able to prevent the fading into the surrounding gloom of many of its supporting details. Only Hunter’s face, once bathed in light, is still fairly clear. One can just make out that he is depicted at his writing table, caught, we are to imagine, in the midst of his thoughts. We cannot be shown his actual researches (it took Hogarth and Rowlandson to stoop, with the satirist’s relish, to the horrors of the anatomy room). Rather, we are to see the enlightenment to which the researches led. Hunter’s left hand is held pensively to his chin and his eyes look up, far over the viewer’s head, apparently seeing only his new knowledge of Nature’s works.

We can recover the details from the surrounding darkness. William Sharp, a friend of Hunter, made an engraving from the painting in 1788, soon after it was finished, and there is also a small, fine-enamel-on-copper copy by Henry Bone, made ten years later. From these we can see more clearly not only what Reynolds saw, but how Hunter saw himself. He is dressed in the rumpled velvet suit of the intellectual in the privacy of his study. On his table the ink is uncorked; his right hand dangles, holding his pen. Hunter had been extremely reluctant to sit for Reynolds, but Sharp cajoled him into it. (The engraver’s enthusiasm is itself a sign of Hunter’s status: there was a good market for the two-guinea prints that Sharp sold of his copy of the Reynolds portrait.) Hunter finally seems to have been persuaded into taking some kind of interest in the enterprise, for he must have expressed his opinions about the details that the artist would paint in once the portrait was finished. On the table and in an alcove behind it are objects chosen with what can only have been the thoughtfulness of the sitter to declare his achievements.

Propped open is the anatomist’s own drawing-book, displaying, on the verso, six fore-limbs, arranged in descent from the most specialised (the horse), through deer, pig, dog, monkey to the most ‘primitive’, man. On the recto are six skulls, another ‘graded series’ running down from the skull of a European human to an aboriginal human, and then chimpanzee, monkey, dog, crocodile. Next to this folio are two manuscript volumes: a Natural History of Vegetables and a Natural History of Fossils, signifying the range of Hunter’s researches, and both presumably intended for eventual publication. Under a bell-jar is a strange, plant-like object whose once delicate tracery is clear only in Sharp’s engraving. It is a ‘bronchial tree’: a fragile cast made, with great skill, by injecting wax into a lung and corroding away the tissue to leave visible the injected passages. Perhaps its odd beauty appealed to the painter too, but it was undoubtedly included as evidence of the anatomist’s technical accomplishment. Above is another jar, containing a specimen that only a few of Hunter’s fellow professionals would have recognised: the metacarpal bone of an ass showing a successful bone graft. Here, for those able to recognise what they saw, was the work of Hunter the pioneering experimentalist.

In the top-right corner of the portrait are two skeletal human shins and feet. Dangling into the painting, their effect is now a little comical. All the more so when we know that they would have been recognised as the extremities of the skeleton of ‘Charles O’Brien’, the Irish Giant. O’Brien’s skeleton was one of Hunter’s most famous specimens. From the first, there were dark stories about how it was obtained. Before the Anatomy Act of 1832, bodies had to be procured either from the hangman or by grave-robbing. Before his death another, almost contemporary, ‘Irish Giant’, Patrick Cotter, knowing that the anatomists would be itching to get hold of his corpse, prescribed measures to prevent the theft of his body from the Roman Catholic chapel in Bristol where he was to be buried. There were to be three coffins, the outer two made of lead, and iron bars were to be embedded in the concrete above the grave. For once, the defences against the ‘resurrectionists’ were successful. In 1906, exactly a century after Cotter’s death, contractors laying drainage rediscovered his undisturbed remains. O’Brien, however, who was supposed to have paid friends to bury him at sea, did not escape.

Anatomists had to be at least tactful and often secretive about their activities. Hunter’s brother William, a famous fellow surgeon whose portrait now flanks John’s in the College’s Council Room, advised his students in the anatomy hall that, in order to ‘avoid giving offence to the populace’, they should ‘out of doors, speak with caution of what may be passing here’. To ‘the populace’, their researches seemed fearful, particularly because of their hunger for recently dead bodies. In 1871, John Hunter testified, as an expert witness in a trial, that he had dissected ‘some thousands’ of human subjects. He is said to have acknowledged his procurement of the Giant’s fresh corpse by announcing, without further explanation, in one of his lectures to fellow anatomists: ‘I have recently acquired a tall man.’ They would have known that he had been after it. Acquisition was deviously done and Hunter had agents to supply him. Presumably their means were their own business.

Yet in the Reynolds portrait Hunter’s possession of the Giant’s skeleton is a matter of pride. It is emblematic of his curiosity about the nature of human growth and development. Believing that the explanation of the Giant’s stature was in his bones, he had boiled away the flesh and ‘articulated’ the skeleton (a simple matter for a man who had successfully articulated the skeleton of an elephant from George II’s menagerie). We now know that Charles O’Brien was a pituitary giant, his abnormal height, just short of eight feet, the result of a tumour in the pituitary gland leading to over-production of growth hormone. To Hunter, the exact causes remained a mystery. Still, this singular specimen retained its value, held in Hunter’s private museum in Leicester Square, where gentlemen who shared his unaffrighted curiosity about the mechanics of life might sometimes inspect his matchless collection.

The appearance in the portrait of the Giant’s remains – or a bit of them – says something about the gap between the experimental scientist and the public in the late 18th century. Seeking to show himself in the tireless pursuit of enlightened knowledge, Hunter chose an image that combined two popular aspects of his reputation (and that of others of his trade): the anatomist as body-stealer, the anatomist as monstrosity-seeker. This is all the more striking now. Hunter’s collection, as much of it as has survived the centuries and the bombing of the Royal College in 1941, is today part of the College’s Hunterian Museum. The Giant’s skeleton is still on display there, a freak of nature, but part of a scientific account of the workings of the human body. Our knowledge of the man who left his collection to science, however, is still tangled in apocryphal tales. The fullest biographies, John Kobler’s The Reluctant Surgeon (1960) and Jessie Dobson’s John Hunter (1969), give us extraordinary narratives about his strange experiments and his pursuit of specimens with what Kobler calls ‘an avidity verging on mania’. Yet it is difficult to know how reliable many of these stories are. The most recent biography, George Quist’s John Hunter (1981), confines itself to ‘known and established’ facts and is a much thinner book.

Most of Hunter’s papers, including all those depicted in the Reynolds portrait, were burnt after his death by his brother-in-law and first biographer, Sir Everard Home. Home, knighted after successfully treating a sore on the Prince Regent’s head, was himself a successful society surgeon who rose to become vice-president of the Royal Society. His prestige as a researcher rested largely on the papers he read to the Society; it seems certain that many of these drew, without acknowledgment on Hunter’s unpublished writings, which Home destroyed in order to cover his tracks. What survived was the Hunter myth: the idea of the ruthless, obsessive experimenter, the collector of freaks and abortions, the monster-man. It outlived his work as a practising, and apparently humane, surgeon. It is a myth that returns in a new and haunting form in Hilary Mantel’s latest novel, where the stories of Hunter and of his Giant tell us of the horror, rather than the wonder, of life. The imagined lives of these two characters are interleaved, as history draws them together. And it is Hunter, in Mantel’s imagining, who is the true freak, his sensibilities misshapen in his deforming quest for knowledge. The biographical captions in the Hunterian Museum locate him in ‘an intellectual climate of free-thinking, rational, unsentimental humanitarianism’. Mantel’s novel finds him a cold and terrible spirit. He buys the corpses of babies by the inch. He is hungry to understand life but able to live only among death.

The Giant also comes from myth. For him and his progress through the book, Mantel has invented an odd, fabular prose, half-lyrical and half-perplexed, as if he were moving through some fairy tale and the narration were adapting itself to him. Indeed, fairy tales are what he tells to those who accompany him from rural Ireland to London, where he and they seek their fortunes by exhibiting this prodigy of nature. In the poverty of Ireland and the squalor of London – each just suggested by the novel, most evident in the shrunken aspirations of its characters – his tales seem to transport these desperate men to worlds of luxury and sensuality and mysterious reward. As they listen, the Giant’s supporters (‘friends’ they turn out not to be) throw in their own cruel or cynical comments, guessing at the stories’ outcomes. Invariably, they fail to foresee the shades of darkness that overwhelm wonder at the end of each of the Giant’s narrations. The freaks of London are ‘the characters set free from these stories’. Life replicates their premonitions and their horrors.

The person who was ‘the Giant, O’Brien’ was from Littlebridge in Ulster. His real name was Charles Byrne. Oddly, Mantel has this the other way round, making O’Brien his real and Byrne his stage name – and losing the interesting historical point that Patrick Cotter, the successor ‘Irish Giant’, also renamed himself O’Brien. Her Giant is whimsically intelligent and can play with the meaning of a Latin aphorism as well as weave a magical tale. She acknowledges in an afterword that the real O’Brien ‘bears little resemblance’ to her character. He may well have been mentally retarded, though newspaper puffs declared that ‘the ingenious and judicious who have honoured him with their company have bestowed the greatest encomiums on him, and on their departure have expressed their approbation and satisfaction.’ (The supposed gentlemanliness of such a ‘curiosity’ was a characteristic 18th-century fascination. The most interesting freak was a freak with good manners.) But it is important for Mantel’s fiction that, although she has invented her giant, he did exist. Just as there was, among an educated few, a covert rage for anatomical experiment at the time, so there was a popular passion for freaks and prodigies, particularly for giants and dwarves. We must believe, and the novelist must herself believe, that there is a history behind the fiction, a history that is there to be glanced at or touched on. Most who read the novel will not know anything of the research that went into it, but many will be able to sense the evidence of the novelist’s intelligence: the way that research then gets left out of what she writes.

When he comes to London, Mantel’s Giant encounters other strange beings, those characters from macabre fairy tales, exhibited for money. She has got most of them from advertisements of the time. The Collectanea of the clergyman and antiquarian Daniel Lysoms, huge volumes of cuttings from contemporary newspapers which are now in the British Library, has a whole section devoted to giants and dwarves. ‘It seems as though we should have a war of the giants,’ observed one London newspaper in 1785. Patrick Cotter was also exhibited as ‘the Irish Giant’, and we do not know for sure whether he or Byrne is depicted in Rowlandson’s sketch, made into a print, of the Surprising Irish Giant at St James’s Street. Mantel makes grim comedy out of the pressures on the Giant and his companions from all the other prodigies clamouring for the public’s attention in Georgian London. Rowlandson depicted The Wonderful Learned Pig performing in the room where one also paid to see the Irish Giant. A contemporary newspaper advertisement declared that this ‘entertaining and sagacious Animal’ could count and spell, and ‘likewise tells any Lady’s Thoughts in Company’. As ‘Toby, the sapient pig’ this creature reappears in the novel along with other beings from the ‘exhibitions’ of the period. Mantel imagines stiff competition in ‘the freak racket’, between the pinheads and the Spotted Boy, the man with ‘flippers where others have arms and legs’ and the ‘What Is It, dragging its chain in the next room’. ‘Nature’s curlicues and flourishes’ is how the Giant thinks of them, ‘the fruit of God’s absent-mindedness’.

No wonder the mob hates anatomists; their appetite for nature’s misbegotten forms is a theme in this novel. Before they sell his corpse to Hunter’s ghoulish, ever-present agent, Howison, the Giant’s companions take part in an enjoyable riot against these feared predators. An ‘anatomy’, says one of them, struggling with a word for a new kind of monster, is a man ‘who cuts up persons after they’re dead and pulls out their hearts and eats them’. Mantel, too, imagines the anatomist as well worth fearing. Stalking alone ‘by the crepuscular Thames’ in hope of suicides, ruminating among his copper vats and nameless specimens, Hunter nurtures an appetite that can never be satisfied. ‘I’ll go barefoot for knowledge.’ It was rumoured that he deliberately infected himself with what he thought was gonorrhea, but was in fact syphilis, in order to collect observations for his 1786 Treatise on the Venereal Disease (avidly read by James Boswell). Even Mantel cannot quite believe that curiosity would be so unflinching, and writes a gruesome little scene in which the surgeon is stabbed with an infected scalpel (just where it hurts most) by one of his resentful ‘subjects’ (paupers on whom he experimented for meagre payments). In fact, the myth of Hunter’s self-inoculation was scotched by George Quist in a 1979 paper. The story, designed to fit the image of the inhuman experimentalist, was fabricated by a pupil of Hunter’s, Jesse Foot, who had become a disgruntled rival.

One of Hunter’s biographers wants to root his researches in an early wonder at ‘the glories and complexities of the natural world’, and another to celebrate ‘his desire to promote truth and progress in all branches of science’. Quist, a fellow surgeon, tells us that he ‘worshipped Nature with profound humility’. Like those before her who have made a myth of Hunter, Mantel has decided that his dedication was disturbing enough to license her tale of a dark quest for enlightenment (‘The Scotch nightman’, Horace Walpole called him.) For the surgeon, as for the doomed Giant, she invents a strange and suitable prose, self-tormenting and tireless, restive with theories and suppositions that cry out to be tested. It is no surprise that one of many legends about John Hunter suggests that Robert Louis Stevenson based Dr Jekyll’s laboratory on Hunter’s house in Leicester Square, Jekyll having ‘bought the house from the heirs of a celebrated surgeon’. Hunter remains a figure as legendary as his Giant. Myth can make for cliché, but Mantel brings her chosen legends to new life.