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on 22 August 2007
Druin Burch's exposition on the life and times of the world famous surgeon Astley Cooper is not only a brilliantly researched and written medical biography but also an exceptional biography full stop, as well as a great read.

He outlines the life of an extraordinary person, and manages to draw the reader in to not only the details of his life, but also the feelings he must have felt as he pioneered the types of basic surgery we take for granted. Exposing a fair bit of himself in the process, Burch has written a book that is easily readable by laypeople and gives an insight into traditional surgery - raw, unadulterated and with no anaesthetic !

For those interested in life in 17th and 18th century England, the book does not disappoint and Burch does a great job in recreating the sights and smells of the era.

All in all, well worth a read and an exciting book for a first time author.
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on 28 March 2017
Great book fast delivery many thanks
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on 30 April 2017
Interesting read
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on 7 June 2007
I have no medical training whatsoever, must confess that I had not heard of Sir Astley Cooper and am bordering on the unneccessarily squeamish in medical matters, yet I found this to be a thoroughly engaging, well written and unusually well-informed biography which held my attention from beginning to end.

Being a doctor and experienced in A&E has given Druin Burch an unique position from which to write about and review the life of a surgeon of two centuries ago. The juxtaposition of modern-day gore in the life of an hospital doctor with the frightening world of the surgeon (and in particular the patient) of the early nineteenth century could so easily have jarred but Burch works the two together seamlessly throughout the book and they help each other enormously.

It also contains easily the most revolting pair of sentences I have ever read together in any work.

Very difficult to believe that this is the first book from the author. Impossible to believe that it will be the last.
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on 31 May 2007
Druin Burch has opened up the doors of the 18th century dead house, lifted the lid on the coffins and takes the reader inside the mind of Astley Cooper's incredible life during a period of vast social, scientific and political changes. Burch does not attempt to dumb down Cooper's world, and uses it as a framework to provide the reader with a detailed insight of what being a physician and/or surgeon was all about. For medical historians, this is a must-read, and one you will not want to leave alone. Succinctly put, this publication is an education in itself and very well worth the 5 stars I have awarded.
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on 13 May 2011
I purchased this book hoping to help my research into ressurectionists - in that respect I was disappointed BUT instead I read a thoroughly researched work on the private and professional life of (Sir) Ashley Cooper. The text was enhanced by the fact that the author is himself a doctor and ran a small thread of his own life alongside the main storyline to explain some medical terms and experiences - this worked well.

I was aware of the importance of Ashley Cooper but knew little about his work other than in a very general aspect. By the end of the book I was immensely grateful to him for being such a free thinker and pioneer into medical science that we all benefit from today. I felt the context was well researched, not subject to conjecture and well written - I have no medical knowledge but interested in that period of history and rapidly became engrossed in the book.

I only really purchased the book on a bit of a whim but I am thoroughly glad I did.
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on 16 May 2008
In today's western society, more bodies are donated to medical science than are required, but in the latter part of the eighteenth century, procurement of human cadavers was the lucrative occupation of the grave robbers. Dissection of human specimens, alive or dead, was a professional necessity for the young man who wished to become a surgeon.
Digging up the Dead is the biography of Astley Cooper (1768 - 1841), a man whose initial aspirations were to graduate from apothecary to surgeon and thence the role of physician. A man who rose to be the richest surgeon in Georgian England.
Digging up the Dead also provides an absorbing insight into the age when surgical procedures and anatomical knowledge were severely limited; where surgery was often experimental and where the unfortunate patients faced both excruciating pain and the high risk of mortality.
Soon after commencing his seven year's medical apprenticeship in London, Cooper became intrigued with the science of surgical procedures - more specifically the art of human dissection. He believed that only through dissection, vivisection and surgery could the mechanisms of life be unravelled.
Though he preferred to hone his skill on the partially decomposed flesh of human cadavers, he also welcomed the opportunity to dissect and examine either live or dead animals. His specimens ranged from dogs and cats to exotics such as an elephant, kangaroo and whale.
Astley Cooper was a man of startling contrasts spending an hour a day with his hairdresser and insisting on wearing the finest silk stockings to complement the shape of his calf muscles. Yet he was a man who could rush from cadaver to patient without washing the bloodstains from his hands; a man of physical charm and charisma who demonstrated unceasing enthusiasm and energy for surgery. Yet he had the uncanny ability to ignore the cries from the pain he inflicted on his patients. Without the availability of anaesthetics, it is said that many of the surgical procedures of the day were tantamount to gross acts of cruelty.
Digging up the Dead takes the reader into the often despicable, horrific yet challenging world of dissection and vivisection. The author puts into place the roles of apothecary, surgeon and physician and shows how political allegiances of the time could affect a man's career.
Burch takes the reader on a journey back in time. He reveals a vibrant London around 1800 depicting the squalor of the backstreets, the desecrated graveyards, the fine drawing rooms of the titled classes and the mortuaries of the major teaching hospitals of the day. Included is a stark reminder of the financial and physical costs of surgery. It was a time when life and death balanced on the surgeon's knife edge, where infection was carried on blood-stained instruments directly from cadaver to live patient.
Burch also transports his reader into the dark world of grave robbers -men known as resurrectionists, exhumers, lifters or sac 'em up men - night-workers who were prepared to chance the gallows in return for rich pickings made from the trade in fresh corpses. It was a time when life was cheap and death often came early. Where the bodies of infants and fresh foetuses were charged by the inch and `larges' or adult cadavers could return ten guineas apiece. A time where hospital wards stank of the putrid stench of rot or with the scent of wine and spirits which were used as preservatives. It was a time when the poor had little access to free surgical treatment and usually died without surgical intervention. A time when had access to expensive surgical procedures but where ironically many suffered excruciating deaths at the hands of the inexperienced surgeons.
Digging up the Dead is an intriguing and well researched biographical work written by a latter day physician. Burch interlaces his chapters with some personal experiences, and supplements this biography with a useful index and extensive bibliography. His descriptive passages pulsate with the flow of a fiction novel. An informative and thoroughly enjoyable read.
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on 26 April 2007
This biography, skillfully interwoven with short sections concerning the author's own experience in the medical profession, brings to life an extremely interesting and influential figure in medicine along with the conditions and key figures of the late 18th to early 19th century. Touching on the challenges of surgery without anaesthesia, the political turmoil in a time of revolution and the need to be able to procure cadavers in one way or another in order to fulfill the vital need to move into a new era of surgery.

Despite not being a doctor I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone interested in general history as well as medicine.
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on 4 December 2011
When this book arrived, with its murky cover and first pages devoted to the author not the subject, my spirits drooped.

However, thanks to some brisk editing the book improves as the biography of Astley Cooper, the most famous surgeon of his age, progresses.

Cooper rose to become surgeon to the king while keeping company with grave robbers. The author vividly describes the atmosphere of the age, which will appeal not just to students of medical history but anyone interested in the Georgian period. For those with no medical knowledge, occasional footnotes usefully point out the difference between medical understanding then and now.

It may seem extraordinary to us, but men were cut for the stone (kidney stones) before amateur audiences and surgeons rarely washed their hands let alone disinfected their tools. Opium had been known since ancient times but was not used in surgery; the microscope was a century old, but no connection between bugs and infection was posited.

While I wouldn't advise others to read this book at the breakfast table, flashes of mordant wit did sometimes cause me to spit out my toast:
Here's the anecdote of the different afterlives of the atheist philosopher and the Anglican clergyman:
"...(David) Hume was wealthy enough to hire a guard for his own corpse, but ... Laurence Sterne was not so lucky... Like all who died poor he was buried cheaply. That made him cheap to dig up again.
The author of Tristram Shandy outperformed Christ by twenty-four hours, coming back from his grave on the second day. But unlike Christ, Sterne came back very much as he had left: stone dead. Two days after his burial he turned up on a dissecting table in Cambridge. He was recognised..."

I'd also recommend this book to anti-vivisectionists. Surgery advanced not just by grave robbing but by poaching stray cats and dogs. Without the cruel experiments described here our present ease would be much less assured.
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on 22 October 2014
This is a life of Sir Astley Cooper, whose times straddled the 18th and 19th Centuries. He was Britain’s foremost surgeon of his day and this biography covers his rise to eminence. But it is more than just a standard life. The writer is a medical doctor and the book is also a fascinating study about the level of medical knowledge (or, rather, ignorance would be a better description) and the treatment of those unfortunate enough to require surgery. Cooper mostly developed his expertise by either dissecting illegally harvested corpses or experimenting through vivisection techniques. These, together with the toe-curling descriptions of the surgery performed on trussed up and terror-struck un-anaesthetised subjects can be challenging reading! Like many prominent people, Cooper was a mass of contradictions, but there is no doubt he should be admired for his tenacity in advancing the boundaries of medical awareness. This is also a most useful source for any writer wanting to understand and include medical subjects in historical fiction.
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