Abernethy's Lectures on Surgery, Anatomy & Physiology

Scope and Content

Windsor attended Abernethy's lectures during the years 1810-1814, which is when the manuscript most likely dates from, but an inscription in the front, presumably written at a later date, reads 'John Windsor, Manchester, 1821'. The volume also bears the bookplate of the Manchester Medical Society, which indicates that it was donated to them by Thomas Windsor on 17 September 1877. Additional annotations indicate that it was allocated the reference Q 820 viz. the Society's 1890 library catalogue.

There is no attempt to divide up the lectures or number them individually but there are clear subject headings throughout and writing is on both the recto and verso of each page. In the lectures Abernethy illustrates the different afflictions he addresses with relevant cases and anecdotes and describes suitable treatments for many of them. The text is split into two sections, the first having the page numbering 1-140. There are then two blank folios before the second section begins, which has the page numbering 1-215, although the notes carry on for several pages more beyond this.

Some of the topics covered in the first section include: introduction to diseases, injury, and irritation; afflictions to certain parts of the body in sympathy; disorders produced by local causes; nervous disorders (pain, sickness, rigors, convulsions, fainting, delirium, tetanus); digestive disorders; local objects; diseases arising from inflammation (phlegmonous inflammation, cysts, abscesses, sarcomas, carcinoma, wens, erysipelatous inflammation, gangrene, carbuncle anthrax, oedema, ulcers, tic douloureux [trigeminal neuralgia]); diseases arising from extraneous cause or injury (cuts, punctures, gun-shot wounds, mechanical injury of bones, compound fractures, chemical injuries, burns and scalds); diseases produced by something noxious from the peculiar sensibility of parts (lues venerea or syphilis, pseudo syphilis, gonorrhoea, diseases of the urethra, retention of urine, morbific poisons from rabid animals etc.); diseases of the skin; diseases of the eyes; diseases about the rectum; paronychia.

The second section deals with: structure, composition, and formation of bones; thickening of bone; abscesses; necrosis; difference between diseases of bones and of soft parts; rickets; mollities ossium [osteomalacia]; exostosis; fungus ossium; tumours [neoplasms]; nomenclature of bones; diseases of joints; ankylosis; teeth; jaw; spine; spina bifida [spinal dysraphism]; sternum; dislocations & fractures; shoulder joint; diseases of the hip joint; wrist; amputation of the fingers; knee joint; ligaments of the tarsus; muscles (wry neck [torticollis], diaphragm, abscesses, breathing [respiration], plantar fascia, biceps, trapezius muscle, in relation to treatment of fractures); diseases of the testicle; bladder stones; prostate; the ear; the skin, hair, & nails; secretion; arteries; nerves; gall-bladder; the pleura; fractured ribs; diseases of the trachea; prolapse uterus; fascia of the forearm; salivary glands; physiology of the pituitary; stomach; liver; pancreas; spleen; worms; larynx; cases where poisons have been taken; obstructions to abdominal organs; nerves; brain; dura mater; lymphatic system; morbid anatomy (heart, kidney, lungs, uterus); injuries to the head (trephine, concussion); the eye; surgical procedures (for fistula lachrymalis [lacrimal fistula], polypi of the nose, tying tumours, harelip [cleft lip], diseased breast, hernia, urinary calculi, phimosis, aneurysm, arteriotomy, sutures, tracheotomy, paracentesis thoracis, gastroraphy, femoral hernia, castration, amputation).

Administrative / Biographical History

John Abernethy was born on 3 April 1764 in Coleman Street, London, the son of John Abernethy and Elizabeth Weir. He began his medical education at the age of 15 as an apprentice to the surgeon Sir Charles Blicke (1745-1815) at St Bartholomew's Hospital, which would have allowed him to attend lectures there in addition to lectures at other London medical schools. Abernethy remained at St Bartholomew's for the rest of his career.

When Blicke was made surgeon at St Bartholomew's in July 1787 Abernethy became assistant surgeon, a role he retained for 28 years until he was appointed to full surgeon in 1815 following the death of Blicke. As an assistant surgeon he was unpaid by the hospital and instead engaged in teaching anatomy, physiology, pathology, and surgery, firstly at a private house on Bartholomew Close until the hospital itself was able to accommodate his lectures in 1791. Abernethy is known to have attended the lectures of John Hunter who was a great influence on him and whose ideas he shared in his lectures. Between 1814 and 1817 he also served as professor of anatomy and surgery at the Royal College of Surgeons. Abernethy's lectures could be a source of controversy, firstly in 1824 when Thomas Wakley published them without permission and secondly during a public dispute with William Lawrence over the theory of vitality that Abernethy espoused in his lectures.

Whilst not known as particularly adept surgeon, Abernethy nevertheless ran a large and profitable private practice. He had a reputation for having a somewhat abrupt and abrasive attitude but this did not seem to affect the success of his practice or his lectures. He published a number of papers during his career, including ones on the management of surgical cases and the classification of tumours [neoplasms], and also made efforts to emphasise the non-surgical aspects of many of the conditions he treated. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1796.

Abernethy retired from his role at St Bartholomew's on 24 July 1827 but continued to lecture there for a further year. In 1829 he also resigned his seat on the court of examiners of the Royal College of Surgeons, by which time his health had deteriorated and he retired to Enfield. After a long illness he died on 28 April 1831.


L.S. Jacyna, 'Abernethy, John (1764-1831)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/49, accessed 24 June 2016] George Macilwain Memoirs of John Abernethy, F.R.S., London, 1853.