A biographical dictionary of eminent Scotsmen/Abernethy, John
ABERNETHY, John, an eminent writer on physiology. The birth and parentage of this gentleman were so obscure, that it is impossible to say with certainty whether he was a native of Ireland or of Scotland. It is even affirmed that he was himself ignorant of the country of his birth. Upon the supposition that he was born in Scotland, his name is introduced in the present work. The date of his birth is given loosely as 1763-64. His parents having brought him in his infancy to London, he commenced his education at a day-school in Lothbury, where he acquired the elements of classical literature. Having afterwards been bound apprentice to Mr Charles Blick, surgeon to St Bartholomew's Hospital, he had the advantage of attending that noble institution, where he eagerly seized every opportunity of making himself practically acquainted with his profession. He also had the advantage of attending the lectures of Mr John Hunter, at the time when that gentleman was commencing the development of those great discoveries which have made his name so famous. The curiosity which those discoveries excited in the public at large, was felt in an uncommon degree by Mr Abernethy, whose assiduity and ardour as a pupil attracted the notice of the lecturer, and rendered the latter his friend for life.
While as yet a very young practitioner, his reputation procured for Mr Abernethy the situation of assistant-surgeon at St Bartholomew's, and he soon after commenced a course of lectures in the hospital, which, though not very successful at first, became in time the most frequented of any in London, so as to lay the foundation of a medical school of the highest reputation in connection with this institution. On the death of Sir Charles Blick, his former master, Mr Abernethy, now considered as the best teacher of anatomy, physiology, and surgery in the metropolis, was elected surgeon to the hospital.
The first publications of Mr Abernethy were a few Physiological Essays, and one on Lumbar Abscess, which, with some additions, formed his first volume, published 1793-97, in 8vo, under the title of "Surgical and Physiological Essays." These were characterized by the same strong sense, and plain and forcible illustration, which marked everything that flowed from his tongue and pen till the end of his life. In 1804 appeared another volume, entitled, "Surgical Observations, containing a classification of tumours, with cases to illustrate the history of each species; an account of Diseases," &c.; and, in 1806, "Surgical Observations, Part Second, containing an account of Disorders of the Health in general, and of the digestive organs in particular, which accompany local diseases, and obstruct their cure." The fame of these treatises soon spread, not only throughout England, but over the continent of Europe; and the French surgeons, especially, did homage to the masterly spirit they evinced. Bold and successful operations, practical and lucid descriptions, original and comprehensive views, all combined to enhance the great reputation of the author, and to elevate the character of the national school of which he was so bright an ornament.
In 1814, Mr Abernethy received what might be considered as the highest honour which his profession had to bestow, in being appointed anatomical lecturer to the Royal College of Surgeons. An anecdote illustrative of his sound integrity is told in reference to this era of his life. A fellow of the college having remarked to him, that now they should have something new, Mr Abernethy seriously asked him what he meant. "Why," said the other, "of course you will brush up the lectures which you have been so long delivering at St Bartholomew's Hospital, and let us have them in an improved form." "Do you take me for a fool or a knave?" rejoined Mr Abernethy, "I have always given the students at the Hospital that to which they are entitled—the best produce of my mind. If I could have made my lectures to them better, I would instantly have made them so. I will give the College of Surgeons precisely the same lectures, down to the smallest details." In the year of this honourable appointment, he published, "An Inquiry into the Probability and Rationality of Mr Hunter's Theory of Life; being the subject of the two first lectures delivered before the Royal College of Surgeons of London." The aim of these lectures was to elucidate the doctrine previously laid down by Mr Hunter, that "life, in general, is some principle of activity added by the will of Omnipotence to organized structure, an immaterial soul being superadded, in man, to the structure and vitality which he possesses in common with other animals." Of this work, it is generally allowed that the intentions are better than the philosophy.
Previously to this period, Mr Abernethy had published other treatises besides those already named. One of the most remarkable was, "Surgical Observations on the Constitutional Origin and Treatment of Local Diseases, and on Aneurism," 8vo, 1809. His memorable cases of tying the iliac artery for aneurism are detailed in this volume; cases which may almost be said to form an era in adventurous surgical experiment. Mr Abernethy also wrote works on "Diseases resembling Syphilis, and on Diseases of the Urethra;" "On Injuries of the Head, and Miscellaneous Subjects;" and another volume of Physiological Essays. He was likewise the author of the anatomical and physiological articles in Rees's Cyclopedia, previous to the article "Canal." Among his various accomplishments, must be ranked a considerable acquaintance with chemistry; and one of his numerous honours is the having, in company with Mr Howard, discovered fulminating mercury.
Besides his business as a lecturer, Mr Abernethy enjoyed a vast and lucrative practice as a surgeon. His manner in both capacities was marked by many eccentricities, but particularly in the latter. He could not endure the tedious and confused narratives which patients are apt to lay before a consulting surgeon, and, in checking these, was not apt to regard much the rules of good-breeding. Considerable risks were thus encountered for the sake of his advice; but this was generally so excellent, that those who required it were seldom afraid to hazard the slight offence to their feelings with which it was liable to be accompanied. Many anecdotes of Mr Abernethy's rencounters with his patients are preserved in the profession. The two following are given in Sir James Eyre's recent work, "The Stomach and its Difficulties:" "A very talkative lady, who had wearied the temper of Mr Abernethy, which was at all times impatient of gabble, was told by him, the first moment that he could get a chance of speaking, to be good enough to put out her tongue. 'Now, pray, madam,' said he, playfully, 'keep it out.' The hint was taken. He rarely met with his match, but on one occasion he fairly owned that he had. He was sent for to an innkeeper, who had had a quarrel with his wife, and who had scored his face with her nails, so that the poor man was bleeding, and much disfigured. Mr Abernethy considered this an opportunity not to be lost for admonishing the offender, and said, 'Madam, are you not ashamed of yourself to treat your husband thus; the husband, who is the head of all, your head, madam, in fact?' 'Well, doctor,' fiercely retorted the virago, 'and may I not scratch my own head?' Upon this her friendly adviser, after giving directions for the benefit of the patient, turned upon his heel, and confessed himself beaten for once." But abruptness and rudeness were not his only eccentricities. He carried practical benevolence to a pitch as far from the common line as any of his other peculiarities. Where poverty and disease prevented patients from waiting upon him in his own house, he was frequently known, not only to visit them constantly, and at inconvenient distances, without fee or reward, but generously to supply them from his own purse with what their wants required. Perhaps the most striking, out of the numerous anecdotes which have been related of him, in illustration of his eccentricities, is one descriptive of his courtship, or rather of his no-courtship. "While attending a lady for several weeks, he observed those admirable qualifications in her daughter, which he truly esteemed to be calculated to make the marriage state happy. Accordingly, on a Saturday, when taking leave of his patient, he addressed her to the following purport: 'You are now so well that I need not see you after Monday next, when I shall come and pay you my farewell visit. But, in the meantime, I wish you and your daughter seriously to consider the proposal I am now about to make. It is abrupt and unceremonious, I am aware; but the excessive occupation of my time, by my professional duties, affords me no leisure to accomplish what I desire by the more ordinary course of attention and solicitation. My annual receipts amount to £____ and I can settle £____ on my wife; my character is generally known to the public, so that you may readily ascertain what it is. I have seen in your daughter a tender and affectionate child, an assiduous and careful nurse, and a gentle and ladylike member of a family; such a person must be all that a husband could covet, and I offer my hand and fortune for her acceptance. On Monday, when I call, I shall expect your determination; for I really have not time for the routine of courtship.' In this humour the lady was wooed and won, and the union proved fortunate in every respect. A happier couple never existed."
After a life of great activity, and which proved of much immediate and remote service to mankind, the subject of this memoir expired, at Enfield, on the 20th of April, 1831.