“Oft expectation fails, and most oft there
Where most it promises.”


No man, perhaps, ever made a happier application of a Divine precept to
the conduct of human pursuits than Lord Bacon, when he said that the
kingdom of man founded in the sciences must be entered like the kingdom
of God—that is, as a little child.

Independently of the sublimity of the comparison, it is no less
remarkable for its practical excellence.

How many broken friendships, enmities, and heart-burnings might have
been prevented, had even a very moderate degree of the temper of
mind here so beautifully typified been allowed to preside over human
labour! How charitably should we have been led to judge of the works
of others! how measured the approbation of the most successful of our
own! No doubt, in the pursuit of truth, there is great difficulty in
commanding that combination of fearlessness towards the world, and
that reverential humility towards the subject, both of which are alike
necessary; although the one may be more essential to the _discovery_ of
truth, the other the _enunciation_ of it.

To pursue truth regardless of the multiform errors and
conventionalisms, amidst which experience has generally shown almost
all subjects to have been involved; unmindful of the rebukes and
obloquy by which too often the best-conducted investigations are
opposed and assailed; and yet to let no angry passion stir, no
conviction that we are right engender an improper idea of our own
superiority, or a disregard for the claims of others; this overcoming
of the world (we had almost said) is intensely difficult, for it is
in fact overcoming ourselves. Yet we dare not say it is that of which
human nature is incapable, for there is nothing that the heart suggests
as morally right which is really impossible to us; and instances have
not been wanting of the combination of the deepest knowledge with the
most profound humility.

On the other hand, it must be admitted that if there were anything
especially calculated to bring down the cultivators of science and
literature to the level of those who are regardless of the claims, or
insensible to the attractions of either; we could hardly find a series
of facts more fatally influential than are furnished by the disputes
of men who have been employed in the cultivation of these elevating
studies. Powerful intellects in teaching the comparative nothingness
of man’s knowledge seem to give great assistance in the acquisition
of humility; but how few are the intellects of such power? The
contemplation of nature, however, may, we conceive, infuse _feelings_
of humility, which can rarely be attained by the efforts of intellect

We have seen, in Lord Bacon, that the highest powers of intellect
afforded for a while no security against the subtle, but one would have
thought feeble, suggestions of a degrading cupidity. We all know, in
literature, how much the fruits of intellect depend on the dominant
feeling under which they are reared and nourished. Even men like Pope
and Addison, who had little in common but that which should elevate and
adorn human nature, were so dragged down by the demon of controversy,
that, commencing with little more than the irritability of poets, they
ceased only when they had forgotten even the language of gentlemen.
In the controversy in question, Mr. Abernethy’s position was a very
difficult one, and one which shows how easily a man with the best
intentions may find himself engaged in a discussion which he never
contemplated; be wounded on points on which he was most sensitive, and
yet defend himself with dignity, and without compromise of any of those
principles which should guide a gentleman and a Christian.

Mr. Lawrence was appointed Professor of Comparative Anatomy in 1816;
and we know that Mr. Abernethy hailed his appointment with considerable
interest. He was regarded as a gentleman of some promise, and had
already distinguished himself by a singularly nice, level style of
composition, as well as by careful compilation.

Nothing could seem more auspicious than such a prospect. Mr. Abernethy
was a man remarkable for the original view he took of most subjects;
a vast experience, gathered from various sources by a mind combining
vividly perceptive powers with great capacity for reflection, a
conformation well adapted for opening out _new paths, and extending
the boundaries of science_. Abernethy was now to be associated with
a colleague who had already manifested no ordinary talent for the
graceful and judicious exposition of what _was already known_.

Nothing could have seemed more promising; nor was there anything in
the opening of Mr. Lawrence’s first lecture which seemed calculated
to baulk these expectations. His exordium contained an appropriate
recognition of Mr. Abernethy, which, as we should only mar it by
extract, we give entire. Having referred to the circumstances which
immediately preceded his appointment, Mr. Lawrence thus proceeds:

“To your feelings I must trust for an excuse, if any be thought
necessary, for taking the earliest opportunity of giving utterance to
the sentiments of respect and gratitude I entertain for the latter
gentleman (Mr. Abernethy). You and the public know, and have long
known, his acute mind, his peculiar talent for observation, his
zeal for the advancement of surgery, and his successful exertions
in improving the scientific knowledge and treatment of disease; his
singular happiness in developing and teaching to others the original
and philosophic views which he naturally takes of all subjects that
come under his examination, and the success with which he communicates
that enthusiasm in the cause of science and humanity which is so warmly
felt by himself; the admirable skill with which he enlivens the dry
details of elementary instruction are most gratefully acknowledged by
his numerous pupils.

“All these sources of excellence have been repeatedly felt in this
theatre. Having had the good fortune to be initiated in the profession
by Mr. Abernethy, and to have lived for many years under his roof,
I can assure you, with the greatest sincerity, that however highly
the public may estimate the surgeon and philosopher, I have reason to
speak still more highly of the man and of the friend, of the invariable
kindness which directed my early studies and pursuits, and the
disinterested friendship which has assisted every step of my progress
in life, the independent spirit and the liberal conduct which, while
they dignify the profession, win our love, command our respect for
genius and knowledge, converting these precious gifts into instruments
of the most extensive public good[38].”

This graceful exordium, so appropriate to the mutual relations of Mr.
Abernethy and Mr. Lawrence, deriving, too, a peculiar interest from the
circumstances under which it was delivered, had also the rare merit
of an eulogium marked by a comprehensive fidelity. There is nothing
fulsome or overstrained. Mr. Abernethy’s well-known excellences were
touchingly adverted to as matters with which all were _in common_
familiar, whilst the necessarily more special facts of his social
virtues were judiciously brought out in just relief, and as an
appropriate climax, by one who appeared animated by a grateful and
personal experience of them. It is distressing to think that anything
should have followed otherwise than in harmony with that kindness and
benevolence which, whilst it forms the most auspicious tone for the
calm pursuits of philosophy, confers on them the purifying spirit of
practical Christianity.

Mr. Lawrence’s first lecture consisted mainly of an able and
interesting _exposé_ of the objects and advantages of Comparative
Anatomy to the physiologist, pathologist, medical man, and the
theologian; together with numerous references to those authors to
whom the science was most indebted. The second lecture was devoted
to the consideration and the discussion of various views which had
been entertained of the living principle, or by whatever name we may
designate that force which is the immediate cause of the phenomena of
Living Bodies.

Amongst others, those entertained by Mr. Hunter and advocated by Mr.
Abernethy were referred to; but in a tone which was not, perhaps, best
suited to promote calm discussion, and which we may be allowed to
say was unfortunate—a tone of ridicule and banter, which was hardly
suited either to the subject, the place, or the distinguished men to
whom it related; to say the least of it, it was unnecessary. We do not
quote these passages, because they are, we think, not necessary to the
narrative, and could, we think, now give no pleasure to any party[39].

In Mr. Abernethy’s next lecture at the College, he still advocated
the rational nature of Mr. Hunter’s views of Life; and, in a most
interesting exposition of the Gallery of the Museum, opposed at every
opportunity the views of certain French physiologists which Mr.
Lawrence had adopted.

He did this, however, without naming Mr. Lawrence; and applied his
remarks to the whole of those who had advocated the opinions that Life
was the result of organization, as a “Band of modern sceptics.”

Mr. Abernethy had, as he says, argued against a party, and studiously
kept Mr. Lawrence, as an individual, out of view. He, however, argued
roundly against the views advocated by him, and endeavoured to show
that those of Mr. Hunter, besides being at least a philosophical
explanation of the phenomena, had a good moral tendency; although he
admitted that the belief that man was a mere machine did not alter
established notions, and that there were many good sceptics, still he
thought that the “belief of the distinct and independent nature of mind
incited people to act rightly,” &c.

In regard to the general influence of the state of France, he says,
“Most people think and act with a party;” and that “in France, where
the writings of the philosophers and wits had greatly tended to
demoralize the people, he was not surprised that their anatomists and
physiologists should represent the subject of their studies in a manner
conformable to what is esteemed most philosophical and clever; but
that in this country the mere opinions of some French anatomists with
respect to the nature of life should be extracted from their general
writings, translated, and extolled, cannot but excite surprise and
indignation in any one apprized of their pernicious tendency.”

There is no doubt that there was at the time, in this country, a
disposition in many people to disseminate very many opinions on various
subjects different from those usually entertained; and we believe that
this disposition was very greatly increased by the well-intentioned, no
doubt, but in our view injudicious, means employed for the suppression
of them.

We think it important to remember this; because, in estimating fairly
any books or lectures, we must regard the spirit of the time in which
they were delivered—what would be judicious or necessary at one
period, being, of course, unnecessary or injudicious at another.

In relation to the opinions of the nature of life; that which Mr.
Abernethy alleged that he intended to apply to a party, Mr. Lawrence
alleged that he held as personally applying to himself. Accordingly,
the following course of Mr. Lawrence’s lectures commenced with “A
Reply to the ‘Charges’ of Mr. Abernethy.” This lecture, which it is
impossible for any man, mindful of all the circumstances, to peruse
without pain (especially if we include the notes), is couched in
language of the most vituperative and contemptuous character: sarcasm,
ridicule, imputation of corrupt motives, by turn, are the weapons
wielded with the appearance of the most unrelenting virulence.

Those of the audience who had heard the graceful exordium, which
we have quoted, to the first course of lectures, and which so
appropriately represented a just tribute to a great master and kind
friend, from a distinguished and favoured pupil, were now to listen to
a discourse which was so charged with various shades and descriptions
of ridicule and invective, as scarcely to be paralleled in the whole
history of literary or scientific controversy. We have recently again
perused the respective Lectures, and we are utterly at a loss to
understand how the most sensitive mind could have found anything in
Mr. Abernethy’s Lectures to call for such a “Reply.” As it appears
to us, its very virulence was calculated to weaken its force, and
to enlist the sympathies of people on the opposite side. We again
forbear quotation. All we have to do is to show that circumstances of
very unusual provocation, such as no man living could help feeling
most deeply, and which bore on one who was acutely sensitive, never
materially disturbed the native benevolence of Abernethy’s disposition.

The dispute, however, soon merged into matters which the public
regarded as more important. Mr. Lawrence, in the lectures which
followed, took occasion to make some remarks on the Scriptures, which
gave great offence, and led other writers to engage in a controversy
which now assumed more of a theological than a physiological character.
This, however, rather belongs to the writings and opinions of Mr.
Lawrence, than to the life of Abernethy. We will therefore at once
offer the very few observations which we alone think it necessary to
make, either in justice to Mr. Abernethy or the profession.

[Footnote 38: March, 1816. Introductory Lecture to Comparative Anatomy.
Published, July.]

[Footnote 39: Introduction to Comp. Anat. by W. Lawrence, F.R.S.
London, 1816.]

“Love all, trust a few,
Do wrong to none: be able for thine enemy
Rather in power than use; and keep thy friend
Under thine own Life’s key: be check’d for silence,
But never tax’d for speech. What Heaven more will,
That thee may furnish, and my prayers pluck down,
Fall on thy head!”


In reviewing the facts of the foregoing controversy, we are anxious to
restrict our remarks to such points as fall within the proper scope of
our present object. These appear to us to relate to the mode in which
Mr. Abernethy conducted his argument, as being legitimate or otherwise;
secondly, the influence the whole affair had in developing one of the
most important features in his character; and, lastly, the impression
it produced, for good or evil, on the public mind, in relation to our

We would observe, in the first place, that the difficulty of Mr.
Abernethy’s position was very painful and peculiar. We are not learned
in controversy; but we should imagine that position to have been almost
without parallel. Mr. Lawrence had been his pupil. As we have seen,
Mr. Abernethy had been his patron and his friend; and, moreover, he
had been not a little instrumental in placing Mr. Lawrence in the
Professor’s chair. This instrumentality could not have been merely
passive. Mr. Abernethy himself was not a senior of the Council at that
time. At all events, he was associated at the College with men much
older than himself, and must have owed any influence in the appointment
to an active expression of his wishes, supported by that attention
to them which, though not necessarily connected with his standing at
the College, was readily enough, no doubt, conceded to his talents
and his reputation. His singleness of mind in this business was the
more amiable, because, had he been disposed to be inactive, there were
not wanting circumstances which might not unnaturally have induced
some hesitation on the subject. In the postscript at the end of Mr.
Abernethy’s published Lectures, delivered at the College, we learn
that, “From an early period of his studies, Mr. Lawrence had been
accustomed to decry and scoff at what I taught as Mr. Hunter’s opinions
respecting life and its functions; yet,” he adds, “as I never could
find that he had any good reason for his conduct, I continued to teach
them in the midst of the controversy, and derision of such students as
had become his proselytes,” &c.

This could hardly have been very agreeable. The pupils were wont to
discuss most subjects in their gossips in the Square of the hospital,
or elsewhere; and many a careless hour has not been unprofitably so
employed. On such occasions, those who were so inclined would no
doubt use ridicule, or any other weapon that suited their purpose;
and so long as any reasonable limits were observed, Mr. Abernethy was
the last person likely to take notice of anything which might have
reached him on the subject. On the contrary, it was his excellence,
and his often-expressed wish that we should canvass every subject for
ourselves; and he would enforce the sincerity of his recommendation by
advising us with an often-repeated quotation:

“Nullius addictus jurare in verba magistri.”

Still, we cannot conceive that the desultory discussions at the
hospital, of which he might from time to time have accidentally heard,
could have prepared him to expect that a similar tone was to form any
portion of the sustained compositions of Lectures to be delivered in
Lincoln’s Inn Fields. When, however, he found his opinions ridiculed
there, by his friend and pupil, what was to be done? Was he to enter
into a direct personal sort of controversy with his colleague in office
at the College of Surgeons?

There was everything in that course that was inexpedient and
repulsive. Was he to be silent on opinions which he _knew_ to have been
Mr. Hunter’s, and of the moral and scientific advantages of which he
had a most matured conviction? That would have been a compromise of his
duty. It was a difficult dilemma—a real case of the

“Incidit in Scyllam qui vult vitare Charybdim.”

If he avoided one difficulty, he fell into another. He tried to take a
middle course—he argued in support of the opinions he had enunciated,
and aided these by additional illustrations; and, in contrasting them
with those opinions which were opposed to him, he endeavoured to
avoid a personal allusion to individuals, by arguing against a class,
which he termed the “band of modern sceptics.” Even this was a little
Charybdis, perhaps; because it had a sort of name-calling effect,
whilst it was not at all essential thus to embody in any one phrase the
persons who held opposite opinions.

His position was intensely difficult. It should be recollected that
Abernethy had always been a teacher of young men; that he had _always_
taught principles of surgery which he conceived to be deducible from
those delivered by Hunter; that he further believed that, to understand
Hunter clearly, it was necessary to have a correct notion of the idea
Mr. Hunter entertained of “Life;” and lastly, that, in _all_ his
Lectures, Abernethy had a constant tendency to consider, and a habit
of frequent appeal to, what, under different forms, might be regarded
as the moral bearings of any subject which might be under discussion.
We readily admit that, usually, in conducting scientific _arguments_,
the alleged moral tendencies of this or that view are more acceptable
when reserved to grace a conclusion, than when employed to enforce an
argument; yet we think that, now, comparatively few persons would think
the discussion of any subject bearing on the physical nature of Man,
complete, which omitted the very intimate and demonstrable relations
which exist between the moral and the physiological laws.

The point, however, which we wish to impress, is, that Mr. Abernethy,
in pleading the moral bearings of Hunter’s views by deductions of
his own, was simply following that course which he _had been in
the habit_ of doing on most other questions; it was merely part of
that plan on which, without the smallest approach at any attempt to
intrude religious considerations inappropriately into the discussion
of matters ordinarily regarded as secular, he had always inculcated
a straightforward, free-from-cant, do-as-you-would-be-done-by tone
in his own Lectures. This, while it formed one of their brightest
ornaments, was just that without which all lectures must be held as
defective, which are addressed to young men about to enter an arduous
and responsible profession.

Abernethy stated nothing as facts but which were demonstrably such; and
with regard to any hypotheses which he employed in aid of explaining
them, he observed those conditions which philosophers agree on as
necessary, whether the hypotheses be adopted or otherwise. He did not
do even this, but for the very legitimate object of explaining the
views of the man on whose labours he was discoursing.

When those views of Mr. Hunter, which had been thus set forth and
illustrated, were attacked, he defended them with his characteristic
ability; and although we will not undertake to say that the defence
contains no single passage that might not as well have been omitted, we
are not aware that, from the beginning to the end, it is charged with a
single paragraph that does not fall fairly within the limits that the
most stringent would prescribe to scientific controversy.

The discussion of abstract principles is generally unprofitable. We
think few things more clear than that we know not the intrinsic nature
of _any_ abstract principle; and although it would be presumptuous
to say we never shall, yet we think it impossible for any reflecting
student in any science to avoid perceiving that there are peculiar
relations between the _laws_ of nature and the human capacity, which
most emphatically suggest that the study of the one is the _proper
business_, and the _prescribed limit_ to the power, of the other.

Still, the poverty of language is such, as regards the expression
of natural phenomena, that necessity has obliged us to clothe the
forces in nature with some attribute sufficiently in conformity with
our ideas to enable us to give them an intelligible expression; and,
whether we talk of luminous particles, ethereal undulations, electric
or magnetic fluids, matter of heat, &c. we apprehend that no one now
means more than to convey an intellectually tangible expression, of
certain _forces_ in nature, of which he desires to discourse; in order
to describe the _habitudes_ they observe, or the laws which they obey.
This is all we think it necessary to say on the scientific conduct of
the argument by Abernethy.

The public have long since expressed their opinion on Mr. Lawrence’s
Reply and Lectures; and whatever may be regarded as their decision,
we have no disposition to canvass or disturb it. There was nothing
wonderful, however unusual, in a young man so placed, in a profession
like ours, getting into a controversy with a man of such eminence as
Abernethy, particularly on speculative subjects. There were in the
present case, to be sure, very many objections to such a position; but
these it was Mr. Lawrence’s province to consider. On this, and many
other points, we have as little inclination as we have right, perhaps,
to state our opinion. Nevertheless, we must not omit a few words in
recognition of Mr. Abernethy’s efforts, and a few observations on the
conduct of the governing body of the College at that time. In the
first place, we feel obliged to Mr. Abernethy for the defence he made
on that occasion: not from the importance of any abstract theory, but
from the tendency that his whole tone had to inculcate just views of
the nature and character of the profession. But we can by no means
acquit the Council of the College, at the time of the said controversy,
of what we must conceive to have been a great neglect of duty. There
is, amongst a certain class of persons, an idea that the medical
profession are sceptical on religious subjects; and many of these
persons are people of whom it is impossible not to value the respect
and good opinion. We never could trace any _legitimate_ grounds for the
conclusion. On inquiry, it has always appeared to be nothing more than
a “vulgar error,” resting, as “vulgar errors” generally do, on general
conclusions drawn by people who have deduced them from insufficient

Sometimes, the persons indulging in this idea have known a medical man
whom _they consider_ to be unstable in his religious views; another
knows that Mr. A. or B. never goes to church; sometimes, even political
differences have been held sufficient excuse for impugning the
soundness of a man’s ideas on the all-important subject of religion. We
have never been able to discover any grounds on which they could, with
any show of justice, support so serious an imputation. For our parts,
we know not how the necessary data are to be obtained, and therefore
should shrink from anything so presumptuous as an attempt to describe
the religious character of any profession.

We have no means of obtaining the evidence necessary even to examine,
much less to support, so serious and difficult a generalization.
The great bulk of our profession are general practitioners; and in
forming opinions in regard to any class of men, we naturally look to
the greatest number. So far as our own experience has gone, we cannot
find the slightest ground for the degrading imputation. Like all other
medical men, their labours are incessant, their hours of recreation
few, and far between. In their requisitions on their time, the public
regard neither night nor day, nor the Sabbath, when they require
attention. Then, if we look to conduct as no unreasonable test of
religion, we may, like all other professions, have blots. We have, in
all grades, it may be, our fee-hunters and long-billed practitioners;
but whether we regard the physician, surgeon, or general practitioner,
we verily believe that there are no men in the kingdom who, as a body,
conduct themselves more honourably, none who are less mercenary, none
who, in relation to their position, are less affluent—no bad test—nor
who do one-tenth of the work which they do, without any remuneration

With regard to the alleged absence from public worship, there may be
(however explicable) some ground for the remark, and especially as no
profession shows, in the general respectability of their conduct, a
more ready and respectful acquiescence in the established usages of

But let the question be fairly stated. How many medical men can go to
church every Sunday, and to the same church, without a compromise of
a paramount duty? We are ready to concede, that the necessities which
professional calls impose on so many occasions, may have a tendency to
form habits, when impediments are less pressing; but is it not rather
the exactions of the public, than the choice of the profession, which
imposes the necessity? How many of the public would be satisfied, if
they wished to see a professional man on any pressing occasion, and
were told that he could not be seen for a couple of hours, as he was
going to church?

Highly as we venerate the benign and beautiful ordinance of the
Sabbath, important as we think it, that, on all accounts, it should be
observed with reverence and gratitude,—still we should hesitate before
we regarded the single act of attendance or absence on public worship
as a safe or charitable exposition of any man’s religious stability.
We, therefore, as far as in us lies, repudiate the charge; we regard it
as groundless; and think that, as no profession affords more frequent
opportunities for a constant awakening and keeping alive the best
sympathies of our nature, so no profession can be more calculated to
impress the fragile nature of the body, as contrasted with the immortal
spirit which inhabits it, or the constant presence of that Power by
whose laws they are both governed. But groundless as we think the
charge, we must contend that the apathy of the Council of the College,
at the time Mr. Lawrence delivered the lectures in question, was a
serious neglect of duty. In those Lectures, Mr. Lawrence spoke of the
Old Testament in a tone which must, we think, be regarded as irrelevant
to, or at least unnecessary in, a course of Lectures on Comparative

We hold no sympathy with that sort of persecution with which several
well-intentioned people visited the book; but we must always regard
the Council of the time as having been neglectful of their duty.
Lectures on Comparative Anatomy do not render it necessary to impugn
the historical correctness, or the inspired character, of the Old
Testament. What answer could private individuals make, or with what
influence could they oppose the prejudices of the public in relation
to the religious securities afforded by men in whom they confide, when
they saw a young professor allowed to introduce into lectures—given
to an audience composed of the most aged and eminent of the profession,
as well as of many of those who were just commencing their studies,
delivered, too, at the chartered College of the profession—matter
which was not only not at all necessary to the most ample exposition
of the subject, but which, as we have said, only alluded to the
Old Testament in a manner calculated to weaken its authority as an
historical document, and to impugn its inspired character?

Surely there was no more certain mode of giving an _ex cathedrâ_
sanction to the unfavourable impressions of the public; impressions
which tend to tarnish the lustre of a profession which founds its claim
to respect on its high office in kindly ministrations and unquestioned
utility; and to arm a vulgar and unfounded prejudice with all the
influence of Collegiate recognition. If, indeed, the College had
desired to support the alleged favourable tendency of Mr. Abernethy’s
views, or the alleged opposite bearings of those to which he was
opposed, they could hardly have done better than to have allowed of
the irrelevant matter in question. But we have done. It is no part of
our business to quote passages, or further to renew discussions long
since passed away, than is necessary for our proper objects. But when
we consider on how many points Abernethy must have been hurt, the very
difficult and perplexing position in which he was placed, we cannot
too much admire the very measured tone he adopted throughout; or the
evidently wounded feeling, but still dignified yet simple statement in
the published Postscript in his Lectures; and though there had been no
subsequent exemplification of his forgiving temper—which was not the
case—we should still have felt obliged to regard the whole affair as
indicative of great goodness of heart; and, when all the circumstances
of disappointment and vexation are duly weighed, of almost unexampled

It is just to Mr. Lawrence to observe, that, some few years after
this, the Governors of Bethlem Hospital, on the annual (and usually
formal) election of the surgeon, an office held by Mr. Lawrence, threw
the appointment open to competition; on which occasion Mr. Lawrence
published a letter expressing regret, in general terms, as to certain
passages in the Lectures in question, and his determination not to
publish any more on similar subjects. The coincidence of this letter
with the threatened tenure of office, of course gave rise to the usual
remarks; but, if a man say he is sorry for a thing, perhaps it is
better not to scan motives too closely. Mankind stand too much in need
of what Burns suggests, and with which we close this not very agreeable

“Then gently scan your brother man,
Still gentler sister woman;
Though they may gang a kennin wrang,
To step aside is human.”

“And though they prove not, they confirm the cause,
When what is taught agrees with Nature’s laws.”


In endeavouring to give some idea of Abernethy’s manner in more
sustained compositions, we have made some selections from the Lectures
he delivered at the College of Surgeons. Without any pretensions to a
critically faultless style, there always seemed to us to be a peculiar
simplicity, combined with a broad and comprehensive range of thought.
Sometimes, too, he has almost a “curiosa felicitas” in the tone of
his expressions; though this was more remarkable, we think, when he
felt more free; that is, in his unrivalled teaching at the Hospital,
of which we shall endeavour to give a more particular account. As we
have before remarked, it is impossible to do full justice to Abernethy,
unless we were to publish his works, with a running commentary; and we
fear that in the selections we offer we have incurred a responsibility
which we shall not properly fulfil. To convey the full, the suggestive
merit of even some of the following passages, it would be necessary to
state carefully the relation they bear to the state of science, both
chemical and physiological, at the time they were written, and the

The interest of the Lectures is so evenly distributed through the
whole, that selection is very difficult; and being obliged to consider
our limits, we have, in the absence of a better guide, selected the
passages at random, as suggested by our own impressions of them. We
therefore can only earnestly recommend the perusal of the Lectures
themselves, as equally entertaining and instructive to the general as
well as the professional reader. The varied expression and manner,
and his fine intellectual countenance, by which he imparted so
much interest to his delivery on every subject he touched, will be
considered in connection with his success in the art of lecturing, to
which these somewhat formal specimens may serve as an introduction.



“When, therefore, we perceive in the universe at large a cause of rapid
and powerful motions of masses of inert matter, may we not naturally
conclude that the inert molecules of vegetable and animal matter may be
made to move in a similar manner by a similar cause?”


“It is not meant that electricity is life. There are strong analogies
between electricity and magnetism; and yet I do not know that any
one has been hardy enough to assert their absolute identity[40]. I
only mean to prove that Mr. Hunter’s theory is verifiable, by showing
that a subtile substance of a quickly, powerfully mobile nature seems
to pervade everything, and appears to be the life of the world; and
therefore it is probable that a similar substance pervades organized
bodies, and produces similar effects in them.

“The opinions which, in former times, were a justifiable hypothesis,
seem to me now to be converted into a rational theory[41].”


“This general and imperfect sketch of the anatomy of the nervous system
relates only to what may be discovered by our unassisted sight. If by
means of the microscope we endeavour to observe the ultimate nervous
fibres, persons in general are as much at a loss as when, by the same
means, they attempt to trace the ultimate muscular fibres[42].”


“Assuredly, motion does not necessarily imply sensation; it takes place
where no one ever yet imagined there could be sensation. If I put on
the table a basin containing a saturated solution of salt, and threw
into it a single crystal, the act of crystallization would begin from
the point touched, and rapidly and regularly pervade the liquor till
it assumed a solid form. Yet I know I should incur your ridicule if I
suggested the idea that the stimulus of salt had primarily excited the
action, or that its extension was the effect of continuous sympathy.
If, also, I threw a spark amongst gunpowder; what would you think, were
I to represent the explosion as a struggle resentful of injury, or the
noise as the clamorous expression of pain[43]?”



“Thus the odour of a cat, or the effluvia of mutton, the one
imperceptible, the other grateful to the generality of persons, has
caused individuals to fall on the ground as though bereaved of life,
or to have their whole frame agitated by convulsions. Substances which
induce disease in one person or animal, do not induce disease in


“Thinking being inevitable, we ought, as I said, to be solicitous to
think correctly. Opinions are equally the natural result of thought,
and the cause of conduct. If errors of thought terminated in opinions,
they would be of less consequence; but a slight deviation from the
line of rectitude in thought may lead to a most distant and disastrous
aberration from that line in action. I own I cannot readily believe
any one who tells me he has formed no opinion on subjects which must
have engaged and interested his attention. Persons both of sceptical
and credulous characters form opinions, and we have in general some
principal opinion, to which we connect the rest, and to which we make
them subservient; and this has a great influence on all our conduct.
Doubt and uncertainty are so fatiguing to the human mind, by keeping it
in continual action, that it will and must rest somewhere; and if so,
our inquiry ought to be where it may rest most securely and comfortably
to itself, and with most advantage to others.

“In the uncertainty of opinions, wisdom would counsel us to adopt those
which have a tendency to produce beneficial actions.”




“If I may be allowed to express myself allegorically with regard to
our intellectual operations, I would say that the mind chooses for
itself some little spot or district, where it erects a dwelling, which
it furnishes and decorates with the various materials it collects.
Of many apartments contained in it, there is one to which it is most
partial, where it chiefly reposes, and where it sometimes indulges its
visionary fancies. At the same time, it employs itself in cultivating
the surrounding grounds, raising little articles for intellectual
traffic with its neighbours, or perhaps some produce worthy to be
deposited amongst the general stores of human knowledge. Thus my
mind rests at peace in thinking on the subject of life, as it has
been taught by Mr. Hunter; and I am visionary enough to imagine that
if these opinions should become so established as to be generally
admitted by philosophers, that if they once saw reason to believe that
life was something of an invisible and active nature _superadded_ to
organization, they would then see equal reason to believe that mind
might be superadded to life, as life is to structure. They would then,
indeed, still further perceive how mind and matter might reciprocally
operate on each other by means of an intervening substance. Thus,
even, would physiological researches enforce the belief which I say is
natural to man: that, in addition to his bodily frame, he possesses
a sensitive, intelligent, and _independent_ mind—an opinion which
tends in an eminent degree to produce virtuous, honourable, and useful





“No study can surely be so interesting as Physiology. Whilst other
sciences carry us abroad in search of objects, in this we are engaged
at home, and on concerns highly important to us, in inquiring into
the means by which ‘we live, and move, and have our being.’ To those,
however, engaged in the practice of Medicine, the study of Physiology
is indispensable; for it is evident that the nature of the disordered
actions of parts or organs can never be understood or judiciously
counteracted, unless the nature of their healthy actions be previously

“The study of Physiology, however, not only requires that we should
investigate the nature of the various vital processes carried on in
our own bodies, but also that we should compare them with similar
processes in all the varieties of living beings; not only that we
should consider them in a state of natural and healthy action, but also
under all the varying circumstances of disorder and disease. Few indeed
have studied Physiology thus extensively, and none in an equal degree
with Mr. Hunter. Whoever attentively peruses his writings, must, I
think, perceive that he draws his crowds of facts from such different
and remote sources, as to make it extremely difficult to assemble and
arrange them[46].”


“Disorder, which is the effect of faulty actions of _nerves_,
induces disease, which is the consequence of faulty actions of the
_vessels_. There are some who find it difficult to understand how
similar swellings or ulcers may form in various parts of the body
in consequence of general nervous disorder, and are all curable by
appeasing and removing such general disorder. The fact is indisputable.
Such persons are not so much surprised that general nervous disorder
should produce local effects in the nervous and muscular systems;
yet they cannot so well understand how it should locally affect the
vascular system. To me there appears nothing wonderful in such events;
for the local affection is primarily nervous, and the vascular actions
are consequent. Yet it must indeed be granted that there may be other
circumstances leading to the peculiarities of local diseases, with
which, at present, we are unacquainted. Disorder excites to disease,
and when _important organs_ become in a degree diseased, they
will still perform their functions moderately well, _if disorder_
be relieved, which _ought to be the Alpha and Omega of medical

As we have seen, in the early part of our narrative, he was one of
the first to insist on the importance of Comparative Anatomy and
Physiology, and, as we shall have to relate, most active in securing
what has proved so greatly influential to its progress in this country
(the appointment of Professor Owen). Yet he modestly ignores any
positive pretensions which might be imputed to him from his endeavour
to illustrate a Museum dealing so largely with Comparative Anatomy.

“Gratitude to the former of the Museum, and also to the donors to
it, equally demand that its value and excellency should be publicly
acknowledged and displayed, which consideration has goaded me on to
undertake and imperfectly execute a task for which I feel myself not
properly qualified.”

Here follows what is very candid in Abernethy, and honourable to Mr.
Clift, who had very many debtors who were less communicative.

“I cordially acknowledge that I have little acquaintance with the
subject, except what I derived from looking over the preparations
in the Museum, from reading Professor Cuvier’s Lectures, and from
the frank and friendly communications of our highly praiseworthy
conservator, Mr. Clift. Permit me to say, gentlemen, though many know
it already, that Mr. Clift resided with Mr. Hunter, and was taught
by him to exhibit anatomical facts in preparations,—that he does
credit to his excellent instructor,—that he feels the same interest
and zeal that his patron did for the improvement of this department
of science,—and that he possesses the same candour and simplicity of


“I now beg leave to add that there are many who think clearly,
who do not think deeply; and they have greatly the advantage in
expressing themselves, for their thoughts are generally simple and
easy of apprehension. Opinions immediately deduced from any series or
assemblage of facts may be called primary opinions, and they become
types and representatives of the facts from which they are formed,
and, like the facts themselves, admit of assortment, comparison, and
inference; so that from them we deduce ulterior opinions, till at
length, by a kind of intellectual calculation, we obtain some general
total, which in like manner becomes the representative and co-efficient
of all our knowledge, with relation to the subject examined and

“In proportion to the pains we have taken in this algebraical process
of the mind, and our assurance of its correctness, so do we contemplate
the conclusion or consummation of our labours with satisfaction[49].”


“Gentlemen (of the jury), I trust I can prove to your perfect
conviction, by ample and incontrovertible evidence, that my client
(John Hunter) died seized and possessed of very considerable literary
property, the hard-earned gainings of great talent and unparalleled
industry. It is not, however, for the property that I plead; because
already that is secured; it is fenced in; land-marks are set up; it
is registered in public documents. I plead only for the restitution
of a great and accumulated income of reputation derivable from that
property, which, I trust, you will perceive to be justly due, and will
consequently award to my client, and his country[50].”


“Believing that no man will labour in the strenuous and unremitting
manner that Mr. Hunter did, and to the detriment of his own private
interest, without some strong incentive; I have supposed that at an
early period he conceived those notions of life which were confirmed
by his future inquiries and experiments. He began his observations on
the incubated egg, in the year 1755, which must either have suggested
or corroborated all his opinions with regard to the cause of the vital
phenomena. He perceived that, however different in form and faculty,
every creature was nevertheless allied to himself, because it was a
living being; and therefore he became solicitous to inquire how the
vital processes were carried on in all the varieties of animal and even
vegetable existence.”


“In the progress of science, genius with light and airy steps often far
precedes judgment, which proceeds slowly, and either finds or forms
a road along which all may proceed with facility and security; but
the _direction_ of the course of judgment is often suggested, and its
actions are excited and accelerated, by the invocations of preceding



“As Sir H. Davy’s experiments fully prove that electricity may be
superadded to, and that it enters into, the composition of all those
substances we call matter, I felt satisfied with the establishment
of the philosophy of Mr. Hunter’s views, nor thought it necessary to
proceed further, but merely added: ‘It is not meant to be affirmed that
electricity is life.’ I only mean to argue in favour of Mr. Hunter’s
theory, by showing that a subtile substance of a quickly and powerfully
mobile nature seems to pervade everything, and appears to be the life
of the world; and that therefore it is probable a similar substance
pervades organized bodies, and is the life of these bodies. I am
concerned, yet obliged, to detain you by this recapitulation, because
my meaning has been either misunderstood or misrepresented[52].”


“He (Mr. Hunter) told us that life was a great chemist, and, even in a
seemingly quiescent state, had the power of resisting the operations of
external chemical agency, and thereby preventing the decomposition of
those bodies in which it resided. Thus seeds may lie buried far beneath
the surface of the earth for a great length of time without decaying,
but being thrown up, they vegetate. Mr. Hunter showed us that this
chemist, ‘Life,’ had the power of regulating the temperature of the
substances in which it resides[53].”





“The progress of science since Mr. Hunter’s time has wonderfully
manifested that the beam, when dissected by a prism, is not only
separable into seven calorific rays of different refrangibility,
producing the iridescent spectrum, but also into calorific rays
refracted in the greatest degree or intensity beyond the red colour,
and into rays not calorific, refracted in like manner, to the opposite
side of the spectrum beyond the violet colour; and that the calorific
and uncalorific rays produce effects similar to those occasioned by
the two kinds of electricity; and thus afforded additional reasons for
believing that subtile, mobile substances do enter into the composition
of all those bodies which the sun illumines, or its beams can penetrate.

“Late observations induce the belief that even light may be
incorporated in a latent state with animal substances and afterwards
elicited by a kind of spontaneous separation by vital actions, or
by causes that seem to act mechanically on the substance in which
it inheres. All the late discoveries in science seem to realize the
speculations of ancient philosophers, and show that all the changes and
motions which occur in surrounding bodies, as well as those in which we
live, are the effect of subtile and invisible principles existing in
them, or acting on them. Mr. Ellis, who, with such great industry and
intelligence, has collated all the scattered evidences relative to the
production of heat in living bodies, and added so much to the collected
knowledge, seems to think that all the variations of temperature in
them may be accounted for by known chemical processes.

“Here, however, I must observe, that Mr. Hunter’s opinion of life
having the power of regulating temperature was deduced, not only from
his own experiments, related in the ‘Philosophical Transactions,’ but
also from observing, that, in certain _affections of the stomach, the
heat of the body is subject to great vicissitudes, whilst respiration
and circulation remain unaltered_; and also that parts of the body are
subject to similar variations, which appear inexplicable upon any other
supposition than that of _local nervous excitement_, or torpor, or some
similar affections of the vital powers of the part which undergoes such



“It is equally apparent that the belief of the distinct and independent
nature of mind incites us to act rightly from principle; to relieve
distress, to repel aggression, and defend those who are incapable of
protecting themselves; to practise and extol whatever is virtuous,
excellent, and honourable; to shun and condemn whatever is vicious and
base, regardless also of our own personal feelings and interests when
put in competition with our duty[55].”


“There is nothing in the assertions of Drs. Gall and Spurzheim
contradictory to the results of general observation and experience. It
is admitted that the superior intellectual faculties can and ought
to control the inferior propensities. It is admitted that we possess
organs, which, nevertheless, may be inactive from general torpor or
want of education. General observation and experience proclaim that
susceptibility is the chief incentive to action, that it is the source
of genius; and that the character of the man greatly depends on his
education and habits. We educate our faculties; what is at first
accomplished with difficulty, by repetition is easily performed, and
becomes more perfect and established by habit. Trains of perceptions
and thoughts also become firmly concentrated, and occur in succession.
Even our feelings undergo the same kind of education and establishment.
Casual feelings of goodwill by repetition strengthen and produce
lasting friendships; whilst trivial sensations of disgust, in like
manner, may occasion inveterate hatred.”


“Should the result of our general inquiries, or attention to the
subjects proposed to us by Drs. Gall and Spurzheim, induce us to
believe that the peculiarities of our feelings and faculties were the
effects of variety of excitement, transmitted through a diversity
of organization, they would tend to produce mutual forbearance and
toleration. We should perceive how nearly impossible it must be that
any persons should think and feel exactly alike upon any subject. We
should not arrogantly pride ourselves on our own virtue and knowledge,
nor condemn the errors and weakness of others, since they may depend
upon causes which we can neither produce nor readily counteract. The
path of virtue is plain and direct, and its object distinctly before
us; so that no one can miss either, who has resolution enough never
to lose sight of them, by adverting to advantages and allurements
with which he may be presented on the one hand, or the menacings
with which he may be assailed on the other. Yet no one, judging from
his own feelings and powers, can be aware of the kind and degree of
temptation or terror, or the seeming incapacity to resist them, which
may have induced others to deviate. Now, though from the foregoing
considerations I am pleased with the speculations of Drs. Gall and
Spurzheim, I am quite incompetent to give any opinion as to the
probability of what they have suggested; because I see no mode by which
we can with propriety admit or reject their assertions, except by
pursuing the same course of investigations which they themselves have
followed; a task of great labour and difficulty, and one which, for
various reasons, I should feel great repugnance to undertake[56].”

Abernethy used to like very well to talk with Spurzheim, who resided
for some time in this country. One day, Abernethy, half-seriously,
half-humorously said to Spurzheim: “Well, Doctor, where do you place
the organ of common sense?” Spurzheim’s reply certainly sustained the
coincidence of phrenological deductions with those of experience.
“There is no organ,” said he, “for common sense, but it depends on the
equilibrium of the other organs.”


“Therefore, from this least interesting part of anatomy, we derive
the strongest conviction of there being design and contrivance in the
construction of animals. Equal evidences of design and contrivance and
of adaptation of means to ends may be observed in the construction of
the framework, as I may call it, of other animals, as in that of man,
which subject seems to me very happily displayed in Professor Cuvier’s

“It was, however, the comparing the mechanism of the hand and foot
that led Galen, who they say was a sceptic in his youth, to the public
declaration of his opinion that intelligence must have operated in
ordaining the laws by which living beings are constructed. That Galen
was a man of a very superior intellect could readily be proved, were it
necessary. I have often known the passage I allude to made a subject
of reference, but not of quotation, and therefore I recite it on the
present occasion, and particularly because it shows that Galen was
not in the least degree tinctured with superstition. ‘In explaining
these things,’ he says, ‘I esteem myself as composing a solemn hymn
to the great Architect of our bodily frame, in which I think there is
more true piety than in sacrificing whole hecatombs of oxen, or in
burning the most costly perfumes; for, first, I endeavour from His
works to know Him myself, and afterwards by the same means to show
Him to others, to inform them how great is His wisdom, goodness, and


“Those bodies which we call living are chiefly characterized by their
powers of converting surrounding substances into their own nature,
of building up the structure of their own bodies, and repairing the
injuries they may accidentally sustain[59].”


Very important in our view. The objection was very new at that time,
and has made very little way yet. We have already referred to this
subject. Considering the period of these Lectures (nearly forty years
ago), Abernethy’s objections, though cautious, are very sound, and,
for him, very positive. We know that he felt still more strongly.

“Mr. Hunter, whom I should not have believed to be very scrupulous
about inflicting sufferings upon animals, nevertheless censures
Spalanzani for the unmeaning repetition of similar experiments. Having
resolved publicly to express my own opinion with respect to this
subject, I choose the present opportunity to do it, because I believe
Spalanzani to have been one of those who have tortured and destroyed
animals in vain. I do not perceive that in the two principal subjects
which he sought to elucidate, he has added any important fact to our
stock of knowledge; besides, some of his experiments are of a nature
that a good man would have blushed to think of, and a wise man ashamed
to publish, for they prove no fact requiring to be proved, and only
show that the aforesaid Abbé was a filthy-minded fellow.”


“The design of experiments is to interrogate nature; and surely
the inquirer ought to make himself acquainted with the language of
nature, and take care to propose pertinent questions. He ought further
to consider the probable kind of replies that may be made to his
inquiries, and the inferences that may be warranted in drawing from
different responses, so as to be able to determine whether, by the
commission of cruelty, he is likely to obtain adequate instruction.
Indeed, before we make experiments on sensitive beings, we ought
further to consider whether the information we seek may not be
attainable by other means. I am aware of the advantages which have been
derived from such experiments when made by persons of talent, and who
have properly prepared themselves; but I know that these experiments
tend to harden the feelings which often lead to the inconsiderate
performance of them.

“Surely we should endeavour to foster, and not stifle, benevolence,
the best sentiment of our nature, that which is productive of
the greatest gratification both to its possessor and to others.
_Considering the professors in this place as the organs of the Court
of the College_, addressing its members, I feel that I act as becomes
a senior of this institution, whilst admitting the propriety of the
practice under the foregoing restrictions, I, at the same time,
express an earnest hope that the character of an English surgeon may
never be tarnished by the commission of inconsiderate or unnecessary






“To me, however, who confide more in the eye of reason than in that
of sense, and would rather form opinions from analogy than from the
imperfect evidence of sight, it seems too hasty an inference to
conclude that, in the minute animals, there are no vessels nor other
organization because we cannot see them, or that polypes are actually
devoid of vessels, and merely of the structure described, because we
can discern no other. Were it, however, really so, such facts would
then only show with how little and with what various organization life
could accomplish its principal functions of assimilation, formation,
and multiplication. Who has seen the multitudinous distribution of
absorbing vessels, and all the other organization, which doubtless
exists in the vitreous humour of the eye, than which no glass ever
appeared more transparent or more seemingly inorganic[61]? How strange
is it that anatomists, above all other members of the community of
science, should hesitate to admit the existence of what they cannot
discern, since they, more than all the rest, have such constant
assurance of the imperfection and fallibility of sight[62]?”


“Our physiological theories should be adequate to account for all the
vital phenomena both in health _and disorder_, or they can never be
maintained as good theories[63].”




“Chemists have considered the change as contributory to the production
of animal heat, which opinion may, indeed, be true, though the manner
in which it produces such an effect has not, as yet, been explained.
Mr. Hunter, who believed that life had the power of regulating
temperature, _independently of_ respiration, says nothing of that
process as directly contributing to such an effect. He says: ‘Breathing
seems to render life to the blood, and the blood conveys it to every
part of the body,’ yet he believes the blood derives its vitality
also from the food. I am at a loss to know what chemists now think
respecting heat, whether they consider it to be a distinct species of
matter, or mere motion and vibration. Among the curious revolutions
which this age has produced, those of chemical opinions have a fair
claim to distinction. To show which, I may add, that a lady[64], on
her first marriage, was wedded to that scientific champion who first
overthrew phlogiston, and established, in its stead, the empire of
caloric; and after his decease, on her second nuptials, was united to
the man who vainly supposed he had subverted the rule of caloric and
restored the ancient but long-banished dynasty of motion and vibration.
In this state of perplexity, I cannot, with prudence or probable
security, advance one step further than Mr. Hunter has led me. I must
believe respiration to be essential to life, and that life has the
power, by its actions, of maintaining and regulating temperature[65].”



“Those of the medical profession must readily accord with the remark
of Shakspeare, that such affections (disturbed states of the nervous
system) which may well indeed be called ‘master passions,’ sway us
to their mood in what we like or loathe. For we well know that our
patients and ourselves, from disturbance of the nervous functions of
the digestive organs, producing such affections of the brain, may
become irritable, petulant, and violent about trifles, or oppressed,
morose, and desponding. Permit me, however, to add that those of the
medical profession must be equally apprized that when the functions
of the mind are not disturbed by such affections, it displays great
energy of thought, and evidence of established character, even in
death. Have we not lately heard that the last words of Nelson were:
‘Tell Collingwood to bring the fleet to an anchor?’ Shakspeare has
also represented Mercutio continuing to jest, though he was mortally
wounded; the expiring Hotspur thinking of nothing but honour, and the
dying Falstaff cracking his jokes on Bardolph’s nose. I request you
to excuse this digression, which I have been induced to make, from
perceiving that, if such facts were duly attended to, they would
prompt us to a more liberal allowance for each other’s conduct, under
certain circumstances, than we are accustomed to do; and also incite us
to the more active and constant performance of the great business of
human life—the education of the mind; for, according to its knowledge
and dispositions, do we possess the ability of contributing to our own
welfare and comfort, and that of others[66].”

You may also like