In 1887, writing under the pseudonym of Aesculapius Scalpel, Hackney GP Edward Berdoe published a frightening novel portraying everyday cruelty and callousness at the fictional St Bernard’s teaching hospital. Despite being a work of fiction, the author claimed 75 per cent of the book was ‘stern reality’. It was a far cry from the familiar image of hospitals as caring institutions. This was more like a castle inhabited by the ‘ghosts of giant physiologists and vampire surgeons’.
St Bernard’s: The Romance of a Medical Student is a Gothic tale of villainy, murder and love set in a medical institution that treats patients as objects of experiment and blunts the sensitivities of its students. But why would a doctor write such a dim view of hospitals?
The key to Berdoe’s motivation lay in his support for the anti-vivisection movement and a belief that literature was a powerful method of persuasion. Anti-vivisection was a significant issue at the end of the 19th century. Groups such as the Victoria Street Society brought the subject to public attention, and Sir David Ferrier had been prosecuted under the Cruelty to Animals Act in 1881 for his research into neuro-anatomy, although he was acquitted.
One of the central villains in St Bernard’s is Crowe, a malevolent physiologist and vivisector who poisons his wife with mushrooms, only for the crime to be solved by forensic science. A recent article by Keir Waddington has noted the influence of the 19th century gothic tradition in Berdoe’s cold-hearted character, Crowe, and suggests that similar images of the ‘mad doctor’ can be found in Arthur Conan Doyle Round the Red Lamp and H.G. Wells’ Island of Doctor Moreau.
St Bernard’s represents an interesting reflection on medical ethics and public fears at a time of considerable scientific advances, by an author with a profound insight into these developments. For a modern audience he paints a vivid and lively vision where student pranks set the tone for later unsavoury practices such as endorsing useless products, plying patients with wine and experimenting on those close to death:
… tried by the performance of operations of terrible gravity on those who… had but weeks to live; down to the snipping off little mites of skin from the arms of one person to ‘graft’ on the wounds of another, had tended to blunt Elsworth’s fine sense of humanity and lower his ideal.
Apart from the literary gothic influence, the book’s cover also suggests a visual influence: a well-known painting of the time depicting Dr Charcot, a French neurologist and professor of anatomical pathology at the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris, demonstrating a case of hysteria:
The St Bernard’s romance is just one of many novels in the Library collections.
Author: Daniel Rees is an Engagement Officer at the Wellcome Library