This volume of the medical journal The Lancet contains issues from 1831 and 1832. The pages shown here discuss the role of surgeons within the medical profession, the spread of cholera, and the dissection of corpses. These were important medical concerns in the late 1820s and early 1830s.
The Lancet was founded in 1823 by the surgeon Thomas Wakely, and it quickly became the country’s leading medical journal.
Medical debates in Middlemarch
Surgeons and physicians
The issue dated October 8, 1831 reproduces a lecture on surgery by Professor Samuel Cooper. Traditionally, surgeons treated external illnesses and physicians internal ones. A hierarchical relationship existed between the two professions. Because surgeons dispensed drugs and performed operations, their work had associations of trade and physical labour. Physicians, by contrast, were deemed educated men of science.
By the early 1830s, however, the division between the two professions was breaking down. Cooper suggests that society needs to re-evaluate the status of surgery: ‘we cannot regard surgery as simply a mechanical art, restricted to manual proceedings … We must recognise [surgery] as a science, founded, like the other branch of medicine, upon the knowledge of the structure and functions of the human body’. He makes the bold suggestion that trainee surgeons should study ‘anatomy and physiology’ before they move on to study surgery. In Middlemarch, Lydgate is a surgeon but, like Cooper, he objects to the ‘irrational severance between medical and surgical knowledge’ and often acts in the capacity of physician (ch. 15).
An issue from February 1832 traces the progress of Asiatic cholera from India to Riga to the United Kingdom, where it started in Sunderland and moved northwards to Scotland. Middlemarch makes frequent reference to the cholera epidemic of 1831-32, as Lydgate and the other men involved in the New Hospital plan for its arrival in the town.
In March 1832, a letter to the editor describes the body of a young girl being removed from Westminster Hospital and taken to an anatomical school for dissection. Anxiety about the theft and subsequent sale and dissection of corpses had been widespread since the case of Burke and Hare. This contributed to a loss of faith in the medical profession. In Middlemarch, some of the villagers fear that Lydgate will allow his patients to die, or even poison them, ‘for the sake of cutting them up’ (ch. 45). Later in 1832, an Anatomy Act was passed in an attempt to prevent the illegal trade of bodies.
- Article by:
- John Mullan
- The novel 1832–1880, Power and politics
Middlemarch is set in the period leading up to the 1832 Reform Act. Professor John Mullan explores how George Eliot uses the novel to examine different kinds of reform and progress: political, scientific and social.