The Georgian way of death

An exhibition reveals how Dr Johnson faced the prospect of dying. Kate Chisholm reports

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The last days of the great essayist and dictionary-maker Dr Johnson were recorded in vivid detail by his biographer, James Boswell. Breathless and in pain, Johnson, aged 75, prepared himself for death with admirable courage. He had been plagued all his life by a fear of the dark, by the insomniac’s dread of not waking up; a dread made sharper by his fervent belief in Purgatory, Hell and the Day of Judgment.

For Johnson, religion was no panacea and the prospect of death was appalling. And yet, with characteristic moral strength, he also contemplated his approaching demise with rational detachment. He asked his physician, Dr Brocklesby, to tell him plainly whether or not he would recover. When told that it would take a miracle, Johnson replied, ‘Then, I will take no more physick, not even my opiates; for I have prayed that I may render up my soul to God unclouded.’

At seven o’clock, in the deep, dank darkness of a December evening, he died, watched over by his manservant Francis Barber and by Mrs Desmoulins, the last remaining female member of his mismatched household. But, as a new exhibition at Dr Johnson’s House in London reveals, by the morning of the second day, his body had been carried down the stairs of No. 8 Bolt Court and into a waiting cart. Anyone who had followed the cart would have seen that it was driven up the Strand and beyond Covent Garden to the yard of a house in Great Windmill Street. No plaque advertised the house’s business, but this was William Hunter’s school of anatomy, where student surgeons were instructed in the art of dissection.

On display in The Tyranny of Treatment: Samuel Johnson, His Friends and Georgian Medicine is the autopsy report. We discover that the body was ‘opened’, in the presence of his surgeon William Cruikshank and other doctors who had witnessed Johnson’s last illness. His lungs, apparently, ‘did not collapse as they usually do when air is admitted; but remained distended as if they had lost the power of contraction’; a gallstone ‘about the size of a pigeon’s egg’ was removed (no wonder Johnson suffered such pain in his last years); his left kidney was in good shape, but his right was ‘almost entirely destroyed’; and while his left testicle was ‘sound’, his right was diseased. His brain was left untouched — perhaps in deference to Johnson’s eminence as a thinker?

The report was written up as a case-study under the heading ‘Asthma’, not ‘Dr Samuel Johnson’ (who it is now thought was killed by emphysema). It fails to record that several of Johnson’s organs were removed from his body and ended up as exhibits. Where now, for example, is Johnson’s left lung? At one time it was thought to have been sold by Cruikshank to a museum in St Petersburg — but the lung has since disappeared. Efforts to find it by the curators of the exhibition, Natasha McEnroe and Rachel Kennedy, have so far failed. Did it never reach Russia? Simon Chaplin, senior curator at the Royal College of Surgeons, believes that it may have ended up in the college’s Hunterian collection of anatomical exhibits and been destroyed when the college was hit by German bombs during the Blitz.

Where now is his right kidney — also known to have been removed? How much of Johnson was in fact buried in Poet’s Corner on Monday, 20 December, after a funeral service in which these words from Corinthians would have been read, ‘How are the dead raised up? And with what body do they come?’

Did Johnson sign anything granting his permission for his body to be carved up before burial in this way? The Tyranny of Treatment is surprising not so much for what it shows us about medical practice in the late 18th century, but for what it suggests about Georgian attitudes to death and disease — and our own.

The autopsy has the scientific precision of a modern-day post-mortem, and yet it was conducted almost in secret, as if by subterfuge. William Hunter had warned his students only a year earlier ‘to take particular care’ not to advertise the proceedings of his academy for fear of ‘giving offence to the populace’. It was necessary, he said, ‘to shut our doors against strangers, or such people as might chuse to visit us from an idle or malevolent curiosity’. At the time Hunter was professor of anatomy at the Royal Academy; his brother John was surgeon-extraordinary to the King. But their profession was still regarded by many with repugnance.

The increasing desire for more understanding of the human body meant that anatomy had been taught in England using the dissection of dead bodies since the 16th century, but it was strictly restricted by Act of Parliament: the only bodies that could be used for such a purpose were those of felons and murderers. At a time when religion still held sway, it was believed that the body needed to be buried whole; it clothed the soul.

Attitudes, however, were changing — with the revival of Platonic philosophy and the development of new ideas about man’s place in the universe stimulated by the Enlightenment. It became more possible to conceive of the soul as being separate from the body: the body was a tool; your real self was something else.

Death was in any case regarded by the Georgians with much more detachment than we would find possible — or acceptable. When Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire’s two-year-old son Richard died of whooping cough in 1791, she wrote to her sister the next day: ‘The poor little fellow has been opened & the disorder found to be exactly such as Kerr [the physician] had described’. She then goes on, only hours, minutes later, to give details of what the doctor found: ‘thick glutinous phlegm adhering to the lower part of the wind pipe so firmly as not to be detached, which occasioned the hooping noise that always attends this fatal complaint’.

Reading Johnson’s autopsy report now, with its lack of any connection to the man who wrote Rasselas or compiled the Dictionary, is discomfiting. It provoked me to wonder just how much more rational and scientific are we than the Georgians? When last year Gunther von Hagen staged Body Worlds, his exhibition of dead humans, shot through with dyes to illustrate the internal workings of the body, he aroused a furious debate about the ethics of using human bodies in this way. How many of those reading this article will be carrying donor-organ cards? How many of us will ever have seen the dead body of a relative or friend?

Other exhibits in The Tyranny of Treatment also suggest this confusion between superstition and rationalism. Johnson wore all his life the gold medallion given to him by Queen Anne when as a child he was brought to London to be ‘touched’ as a cure for scrofula, a kind of tuberculosis. (Queen Anne was the last of the English monarchs to carry on the practice, based on the superstitious belief in the healing power that resided in monarchy.)

But most dramatic of all is the Death Mask. Immediately after the completion of the autopsy, the artist Sir Joshua Reynolds arranged for a plaster-of-Paris cast to be made of his friend’s head (another reason why the brain was left untouched?) from which copies were made for other members of Johnson’s circle. Eyeless, with none of the spirit or expression of the Reynolds portraits, it yet dominates the Garret Room where Johnson and his assistants compiled the Dictionary.

It’s haunting: an image of a dead man, a man stripped bare. Somehow it does bring you closer to what must have been the extraordinary power of Johnson’s personality. And yet, would you want to keep such a memorial of your best friend on your sideboard?

Johnson and his friends accepted death as part of life; the ultimate resolut ion. We, however, in spite of our rational secularism, tend now to hurry away our dead, or else to indulge in outbursts of absurd sentimentalism. Few among us would be able to contemplate our end with such composure as Johnson, both devout and rational.

The Tyranny of Treatment: Samuel Johnson, His Friends and Georgian Medicine is at Dr Johnson’s House, 17 Gough Square, London EC4 until 31 January 2004; tel: 020 7353 3745.