Wednesday, 28 October 2015

London's Dirty Dissector: Joshua Brookes

Joshua Brookes (1761-1833) was an unusual British anatomist. Another anatomist called him "the dirtiest professional person I have ever met. ... I really know no dirty thing with which he could compare -- all and every part of him was dirt."

Brookes doesn't look too filthy in this portrait. Perhaps we should take the quotation with a grain of salt. But even if true, I suppose the bodies he dissected didn't mind a bit of dirt. He couldn't kill them, though perhaps some of the resurrection men who supplied his "subjects" might have. Burke and Hare were not unique.

Brookes studied under several eminent teachers, among them William Hunter and his more famous brother, John Hunter. He was also an innovator in preserving cadavers. He injected them with a nitrogen compound, potassium nitrate. The injections preserved them for a long time even in hot weather, allowing him to keep his school open in the summer, unlike rival schools. It was said his school stank of rotten meat, but then none of the anatomy schools can have been especially fragrant.

Brookes often got into scrapes with his suppliers, the body snatchers or resurrectionist men, presumably over prices. One gang left two decomposing corpses on his front steps, leading to a local mob action against Brookes. On another occasion, they delivered an unconscious man. Brookes only discovered the ruse when he rolled the body down the cellar stairs. Or kicked it down the stairs. He once let slip that he had done that in one case, so it my have been common practice. In this case, the man awoke, jumped up, and fled in terror. Brookes called the resurrection men "the most iniquitous set of villains who ever lived." But he did business with them, as did all the successful anatomists. (Image: "Death in the Dissection Room" by Thomas Rowlandson)

Brookes' other claim to fame was the museum of comparative anatomy he established in his house and school on Great Marlborough Street. Like his preceptor John Hunter, he also kept a menagerie of live animals on the grounds of his house. As his health and income declined in the late 1820s, Brookes sold off the anatomical collection piecemeal. (Image: Brookes' Museum, House, and School)

Further Reading: 
Ruth Richardson, Death, Dissection, and the Destitute
Sarah Wise, The Italian Boy