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As Queen Victoria prepares to enter her fifth decade upon the throne, I stand poised upon the threshold of my own momentous milestone—namely, retirement.
Looking back upon my long and, I must humbly add, distinguished career in medicine, I cannot help but reflect on how very much my chosen profession has changed since I first entered into it nearly half a century ago. Techniques for the diagnosis and treatment of physical maladies have, of course, advanced considerably over the past several decades, but an even more substantial, if perhaps subtler, alteration has occurred in the public perception of medicine itself, and of those of us who practice it. What is today considered a respectable—nay, very nearly sacred—vocation to which to dedicate one's life was once viewed by the common masses with suspicion, and in some cases with outright antagonism, due to a variety of social dynamics far too numerous and complex to go into here. Suffice it to say that the early days of my career were fraught with difficulties, and even dangers, from which a physician starting out today is completely immune. Had I been in possession of a full foreknowledge of these difficulties as I initially contemplated the pursuit of medicine, however, I should not have veered one step from the path I actually followed, so very fascinating were the characters with which it brought me into contact and the adventures it afforded me. One such adventure befell me shortly after I first entered into the formal study of medicine.
Having completed my university studies at Oxford in 1824, I ventured to London and enrolled in St.Alban's Medical School, to pursue the course of study that would ultimately permit me to practice as a physician. Upon inquiring from the Registrar where I might find lodgings close by the school, the gentleman directed me to a dingy narrow house that commonly let rooms to medical students. Earlier in the day, he had directed another student to an apartment at that same address, and, the accommodation being intended for two inhabitants, thought we might wish to share the rooms, as well as the expenses.
I followed the man's directions through crowded, dirty streets until arriving at the designated address, where I climbed a torturous set of stairs up to the first floor and rapped upon the apartment door. In response to a vague, indistinguishable voice from the other side, I let myself into the apartment, where I encountered one of the most singular specimens of human mortality ever to walk the face of the earth. It was Jean-Claude Legard, formerly of Paris, but now a confirmed "Englishman" ever since arriving in Cambridge three years earlier for his own university studies. I shall never forget that first glimpse of him, for it was part and parcel of the man's entire character, as I would come to know it over the course of the next many years. He was sitting at a small table beside the cold empty hearth busily occupied in a game of chess—with himself! Sliding the chessboard 'round and 'round, he played first one player's move, then the other, all the while studying an anatomy book that lay open at his left elbow. He never so much as acknowledged my presence until he got himself into checkmate and turned over his king, punctuating this final move with a strange clicking sound from his tongue. Then he stood up, introduced himself formally with a slight bow, and immediately asked me if I cared to play a game of chess. It was to be the first of countless such games.
Our first year of medical study passed quickly, involving mostly theoretical bookwork along with great quantities of rote memorization. Jean-Claude, of course, excelled in all of this foundational study—his confidence in the synthetic powers of reason being second only to his monumental faith in his own capacity for wielding these powers. While not nearly as capacious as he in absorbing raw intellectual matter, I nonetheless handled myself adroitly enough to complete the first year without serious incident and advance to the second year, when we should finally be permitted to lay aside the books from time to time and venture into the operating theater for some practical firsthand experience with human anatomy. To embark upon next this phase of our studies, it was incumbent upon us to procure our own anatomical specimen, or, in slightly less euphemistic words, a human body. There being in those days virtually no legal means of procuring such specimens, students of medicine reluctantly but almost universally resorted to trade with that seedy species of night-laborer known as "resurrectionists." Not to put too fine a point upon the matter, the resurrectionists were grave robbers for hire. If a medical student required a specimen, he sent word out "on the street," and sometime during the next few days would be approached by a beggar, urchin, or some other species of societal refuse announcing the imminent delivery of said specimen. And then, at the appointed hour and location, the resurrectionist would arrive with the grim fruit of his night's labor, take his money, and disappear back into the darkness from which he had emerged.
Like most students of medicine, Jean-Claude and I felt a natural and instinctive revulsion toward this evil practice, but realizing, alas, that it was a necessary evil, when our time came to produce a cadaver for our continued study of the human anatomy, we swallowed our repugnance and ventured onto the street. The agent of our brief intercourse with the trade turned out to be a surprisingly clear-eyed and energetic lad of fourteen named "Jimmy," whom we arranged to meet at a certain dark hour on a certain dark street corner two blocks away from St. Alban's. We arrived, as instructed, with a rustic wooden handcart, which we had "borrowed" from the school's maintenance shed. Bumping this cart through the virtually deserted street, fearing that . . .The Anatomists. Copyright � by Hal McDonald. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.