Edward Grainger, a surgeon in Birmingham, published in 1815 an account of his working life under the title ‘Medical and Surgical Remarks, including a description of a simple and effective method of removing polypi from the uterus, tonsils from the throat, etc.’ The book was a compilation of surgical procedures Grainger carried out throughout his career.
As a young man he had been the regimental surgeon attached to a regiment at dragoons stationed at the Barracks, Athy in 1798. As was the custom at the time each cavalry regiment had a surgeon who ranked as a captain and an assistant surgeon who had the status of Lieutenant, though neither surgeon outside of their medical responsibility exercised any military command. Their principal role was to provide medical care to the troopers serving with the regiment, as well as advising the commanding officer on matters concerning the health of the regiment’s men.
In the tumultuous year of 1798 Grainger was stationed in Athy as the principal surgeon and his assistant surgeon was a man called Spencer. Grainger struck up a friendship with Dr. Johnson, a physician in the town. Grainger’s colleague Spencer assisted Johnson in treating a patient outside the town when they were induced to visit a man in a neighbouring cabin who was lying there with what was described as ‘a bad leg’. It was clear to Spencer that the amputation of this man’s leg was necessary. Grainger was asked to perform the operation. Grainger left a vivid description of the scene that met him the next day. ‘I never shall forget the scene. In a dark hole, with no more light than could be admitted through an aperture in a wall of 6 inches square, on some straw, on the bare earth, there was extended the most squalid, wretched figure, that I ever met in my sight.
Near his wretched straw was a fire formed of Kilkenny coal, which ignites without a flame. The bluish livid light which was thrown from this fire and the spectre before me, enabled me to discover the skeleton of a leg thrust out of the straw, naked, denuded of all vessels, and muscles, and skin, as are bones collected in a charnel house’.
Grainger does not state what was the nature of the illness suffered by this poor unfortunate creature, but his more fulsome description of the condition of the leg would indicate that there was some extreme form of infection in the leg that Grainger was quite certain threatened the life of the patient. He went on to write ‘this poor man was ordered some porter and wine, and nourishing food, for to have amputated the limb in his then weak state, would have been to doom him to certain death. As soon as he could bear the operation I amputated the limb above the knee’.
This was in the days before anaesthesia and antiseptic surgery. Joseph Lister, the distinguished British surgeon who pioneered antiseptic surgery recorded the amputations he carried out in the years 1864-1866 and noted that almost half his patients died after surgery. Miraculously Grainger’s patient survived. Grainger was curious as to how long the man had suffered with his leg and wrote, ‘I learned from the man that this leg had always been cold, and took to swell. That he knew nothing of the cause of the present disease; that it swelled and became inflamed, and then became as if it were dead; that the soft parts gradually waste away. So firmly was he and all his friends convinced the disease arose from witchcraft, that he had never applied for any medical assistance before the request of Dr. Johnson, who was accidentally riding by, to see him. This was the sum of all I could collect from this man or his relations, who were the most ignorant poor creatures that I had met with.’
After his army service Grainger returned to England. His eldest son, also named Edward, trained as a surgeon under his father and established a distinguished anatomy school in Southwark, London in 1819. Much of the success of Grainger’s anatomy school was attributed to the fact that Grainger had no problem in getting corpses from ‘resurrection men’ or body snatchers, as they were commonly known. The grisly trade of body snatchers would reach its apogee in Edinburgh in the 1820s with the arrest and execution of the Irish body snatchers William Burke and William Hare. Sadly, for Grainger he would see his protégé and eldest son Edward die of consumption at the age of only 27, while his younger son Richard Grainger would go on to have an even more distinguished medical career than his father or his elder brother, culminating in his election to the Royal Society in London in 1846.