Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Dissecting an elephant

Here's something. I came across this passage last night while looking up details about British surgeon and anatomist Sir Astley Cooper (1768-1841). I quote from an 1843 biography by his nephew:
"In the course of the year 1801, an Elephant, which had been one of the principal features of the exhibit, died. Immediate notice of the circumstance was, as usual, sent to Mr. Cooper [2nd image], and, notwithstanding the unwieldy bulk and enormous weight of the animal, he determined to have it brought to his house in St. Mary Axe [4th image, a building in that London neighborhood], where he was still living, and to dissect it. He accordingly hired a cart, in which, after a considerable degree of exertion, the Elephant was deposited, being afterwards covered with a large cloth, in order that it might attract as little notice as possible on its way. In this manner it arrived at St. Mary Axe, and the cart having been driven into the court-yard before Mr. Cooper's house, the outer iron gates were closed, and they set about attempting to get it into an outhouse, devoted to purposes of dissection. All their efforts, however, to effect this proved unavailing, and after a vast deal of trouble, they found themselves obliged to leave it lying exposed in front of the building. During their attempts to remove the carcase into the dissecting-room, a large mass of persons collected outside the gates, and continued to watch their proceedings through the iron railing. The obstruction this crowd caused in the thoroughfare of St. Mary Axe was so great, that it was found necessary to cover up the apertures between the railings by throwing a carpet over them, and to move the body of the Elephant as far as possible out of the view of those who were passing in the street. They were enabled to do this the more effectively, inasmuch as the stabling projected before the dissecting-room, and the body being placed in the recess, was, by these means, to a great degree concealed from public view. Mr. Cooper was thus compelled to dissect this animal in the open air, and finding himself, from its enormous size, unable to perform the task alone, he invited several students from the Hospital [Guy's Hospital, 3rd image] to assist him. Here for some time they worked together, being barricaded from the observation of the public; nor did they cease their operations until they had examined every structure to the very bones. These latter were carefully prepared, and being articulated under Mr. Cooper's directions, formed the skeleton which, even up to the present day, may be seen in the Museum at St. Thomas's Hospital, - an existing memorial of my uncle's scientific enthusiasm."
The dissection was quite a feat, as you can see - if you care to - in this National Geographic video. Note the presence of an audience in both centuries.

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