The Beauty of Bodysnatching: Astley Cooper, the English Surgeon and Anatomist
Born body and soul into the Romantic era, Hector Berlioz found beauty in the wonder of music. As the son of a physician, however, he was encouraged by his parents to enter a career in medicine. When he began anatomical studies, he found the dissecting room was not wholly his idea of a pleasant place: At the sight of that horrible human charnel-house, its fragments of limbs, its grimacing faces and cloven heads, the bloody cesspool in which we walked around, the revolting odor it exhaled, the swarms of sparrows fighting over scraps of lungs, and the rats in the corners gnawing bleeding vertebrae, such a feeling of horror possessed me that I leapt out of the window, and ran panting home as though Death and all his hideous crew were at my heels. I spent twenty-four hours stunned by this first impression, wanting to hear no more talk of anatomy, or dissection, or medicine, and meditating on a thousand mad schemes to extricate myself from the future that menaced me.
In spite of that initial shock, Berlioz managed to stick with his studies, at least for a time.
I consented to return to the hospital and face the funereal scene once more. How strange! Seeing again the objects that had inspired in me such profound horror, I remained perfectly calm, I felt absolutely nothing but a cold disgust; I had become as familiarized with the spectacle as a veteran soldier. It was all over. I even found some pleasure in rummaging in the gaping breast of a poor corpse for a bit of lung to feed the winged inhabitants of that charming place.
“Well done!” cried [my fellow student] Robert, laughing, “You are becoming quite human! Feeding the little birds!”
“And my bounty extends to all nature nature,” I answered, throwing a shoulder-blade to a great rat that was staring at me with famished eyes.
As a young medical student, I did not expect experiences with corpses to be easy (one might be worried if they were). What I was unprepared for was the physical impact of the hospital. The wards seemed full of the elderly, the decaying, and the demented.