History of the RSM - August 2012
Medical Bibliography: A. and B (1834) is the work for which James Atkinson (1759-1839) is best remembered. Its dedication, printed above an illustration of the sacrum, is to "all idle medical students in Great Britain sit –".For a full image, please click here .
Atkinson, according to the title page, was surgeon to HRH the late Duke of York, senior surgeon to the York County Hospital and the York Dispensary, and late vice-president of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society. He had been a pupil at St Thomas’s Hospital, London, of Henry Cline, and attended Thomas Denman’s lectures at the Middlesex Hospital.
“Wanting better amusement, and through mere accident, I stumbled upon the dry, dusty, tedious, accursed, hateful bibliography” is how Atkinson describes the work’s genesis. In fact, it deserves none of these epithets. As a bibliography it may be of negligible value, simply listing authors and their books, but it is a work of great irony and humour written somewhat in the tradition of Laurence Sterne, the author of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, and a friend of Atkinson’s father. Like Tristram Shandy, it appears to be incomplete, covering only the first two letters of the alphabet, but there is no evidence that Atkinson ever intended to go any further. Added to which, the entries supply an occasion for extended exercises in satire and learned wit straying far from mere descriptive bibliography. For instance, Atkinson begins one entry by saying: “I have not been able to see this book” and then continues for five pages. Another entry includes the sentence: “What would I not give, permissu superiorum, to let fly a rhapsody or two, at a venture, of my private philosophical speculations” when really this is exactly what Atkinson offers the reader throughout.
Concerning Atkinson’s bibliography, William Osler wrote:
“If we can imagine a conclave of bibliographers in the Elysian Fields presided over by Rabelais, one of the most welcome members would be a man who had done but little to make a great name, but who had, like the chairman, done more to enliven a dry subject than any other member of the assembly…The dedication had a smack of the Cure of Meudon about it that promised much – and then that a man should publish a two-letter bibliography was in itself a stimulus…”
This fascinating book is almost impossible to summarise, but some choice quotations may help to give some idea of its tone and intention.
Atkinson on Asclepius:
“His books are lost. One man loses a character by his books being lost; another because his books are not lost.”
“Africanus was a great linguist: and so are many ladies we may say: and in such numbers as makes it no rarity.”
On Matthew Baillie’s Morbid Anatomy, and the possible source of his subjects:
“How much the Old Bailey has added to Dr Baillie’s reputation, the day of Resurrection will prove…”
On John Burton (satirised as “Dr Slop” in Sterne’s Tristram Shandy):
“Dr Burton, even within my recollection, resided at York; he had a domestic monkey, (un cher ami); upon whom my Father wished my brother and me to call, and to leave a card. Monsieur de Monkey however was at home: we were desired to walk in. Upon our interview, he instantly leapt upon my head; where he played all the monkey-tricks imaginable; and, seeing my brother laughing at the joke, as instantly he paid him the same compliment. What will not education do? Can you wonder that I should relate this anecdote; remember Dr. Burton, or his monkey?”
On a work by Abbas Haly:
“…the title page is neat and wrought with the facsimiles or portraits (no doubt) of Hippocrates, Haly, and Galen; all these are poring over their books and apparently in a very brown study, almost approaching to black. There are two young and winning women looking up to them, seemingly petitioning them to come down. Judging by the cut of their gowns and their dialect they are French women.”
On Albertus’ De Secretis Mulierum:
“The bishop must have spent a great portion of his time in conning over the impressions De Secretis Mulierum. In a Roman Catholic bishop it is inexcusable – in a Protestant bad enough.”
Atkinson could not resist comment even on the names of some of his authors:
“How much more solemn for a physician is the name of Ricardus Anglicus, than plain Dick English. Had he been here I durst not have said this; perhaps my shoulders might have had a taste of his cat-o-nine-tails…”
“Bacon - I mean Friar Bacon; and I hope the Printer’s Devil will not here again slip in the syllable ‘of’, betwixt Friar and Bacon. He would make a pretty grill. For the Devil delights in grilling, especially Friars.”
“It will be for the reader to decide whether he may choose to name him Brunschwig, Braunschwig, or Brymswyke; or to nick-name him bronze-wig or brown-wig, for a wig he must be. Tories at that time there were none.”
Atkinson on plagiarism:
“We must all plagiarize from each other, or little will be made out, in so intricate an art as medicine. When a writer affects to despise the works of others, and ventures to produce his own as valuable and original, we may be assured that, in this instance at least, he is an original fool at any rate.”
Atkinson on quackery:
“Quackery is so pleasing, so natural, and recondite a passion that we may sometimes excuse it.”
Atkinson on the duties of an accoucheur:
“Shall any man tell me, and with truth, that this said practitioner had not better go up a chimney, as a chimney-sweeper, where he had never before been, and working in the dark; - than up to the pelvis, from whence he originally came, as an accoucheur?”
Atkinson on the practice of medicine:
“The miseries of a medical man, as a general practitioner, are not to be described. For, in the country, in high and billowy situations, where the surgeon is Jack of all trades, it is by no means uncommon for him to pass many sleepless nights, without three hours repose of soul or body. And the indurance, by the hackney surgeon, of lamentations, imprecations, and irritations, can only be known to a country practitioner. He is frequently knocked up, viva voce, et terribili strepitu; and, in an instant, must saddle his horse. He must turn out under a sky so black, so concave, that the best eyes avail him nothing. And if he have the good fortune to reach his assignment, over hills and dales, in safety, he may, after all, perhaps, not be wanted when he arrives there.”
Having written an opinionated and controversial book, Atkinson goes on to claim:
“The reader may have perceived, that…I proceed very warily, skimming over the authors, and their names, as if I were tickling a wasp. For, having no grandes pretensions, I by no means affect, or court the severity or scrutiny of a critic.”
Giving his reasons for compiling the bibliography:
“I have had a sort of itch for old books all my life. But practice, accursed practice, allowed me not time to rub in. Therefore I remain still, a poor miserable impetiginous author, with this prurigo formicans…”
“What blockhead but myself would have chosen such a task for relaxation?”
Medical bibliography: A. and B.
London : John Churchill, 1834.
Librarian's Room 113
Gordon Sharp. James Atkinson, surgeon, scholar, wit, of York.
The Medical Magazine. 1897; 6: 930-45.
John Ruhrah. James Atkinson and his medical bibliography.
Annals of Medical History 1924; 6: 200-21.
Humphrey Rolleston. The two James Atkinsons: James Atkinson of York (1759-1839), James Atkinson, the Persian scholar (1780-1852).
Annals of Medical History 1941; 3rd series 3: 175-82.
Bibliotheca Osleriana: a catalogue of books illustrating the history of medicine and science collected, arranged, and annotated by Sir William Osler, Bt., and bequeathed to McGill University.
Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1929
H.R. Tedder, rev. Michael Bevan. James Atkinson (1759-1839)
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: from the earliest times to the year 2000.
Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2004
All of the items listed are available in the library of the Royal Society of Medicine.
Previous features of the month:
- July 2012 - John Woodall
- June 2012 - The Marcus Beck Library
- May 2012 - Charles Collette
- April 2012 - 100 years at Wimpole Street
- March 2012 - 1 Wimpole Street
- February 2012 - Woodcuts
- January 2012 - Woodcuts
- December 2011 - Charles Estienne
- November 2011 - John Hunter
- October 2011 - Ignaz Philip Semmelweis
- September 2011 - The signature of Thomas Beddoes
- August 2011 - Librarians' Room 23