Review: ‘Death, Disease, and Dissection: The Life of a Surgeon-Apothecary 1750 – 1850’, by Suzie Grogan

Published by: Pen and Sword

Publication Date: 30th October 2017


I.S.B.N.: 9781473823532

Format: Paperback

Price: £12.99


Imagine performing surgery on a patient without anaesthetic, administering medicine that could kill or cure. Welcome to the world of the surgeon-apothecary…During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries significant changes occurred in medicine. New treatments were developed and medical training improved. Yet, with doctors’ fees out of the reach of ordinary people, most relied on the advice of their local apothecary, among them, the poet John Keats, who worked at Guys Hospital in London. These men were the general practitioners of their time, making up pills and potions for everything from toothache to childbirth. Death, Disease and Dissection examines the vital role these men played their training, the role they played within their communities, the treatments they offered, both quack and reputable against the shocking sights and sounds in hospitals and operating theatres of the time. Suzie Grogan transports readers through 100 years of medical history, exploring the impact of illness and death and bringing the experiences of the surgeon apothecary vividly to life.

My Review

Alex at Pen and Sword emailed me a few weeks ago with a list of their newest titles. Alex knows my tastes, I’ve got her trained. As usual, I requested a few books. Three actually. That’s not the most I’ve been sent in one parcel (that was last time, when she sent me six books). I promise, I will review them all eventually, I currently have six Pen and Sword books on my to be reviewed pile. My new medication is making me sleep a lot but now I’m awake, have eaten, had a cup of tea and finished reading, I thought I’d better share my review.

This is a book of two halves; the first is a general description of the life and training of a general practitioner between 1750 and 1850, covering the changes to training and practices, the relative statuses and educations of physicians, surgeons and apothecaries, and the rivalries between them all.

The second half covers the lives of specific but not necessarily well-known apothecary-surgeons, the GPs of their day, including their training and achievements. One chapter covers the Weekes dynasty of medical men in Sussex, making use of the letters of Hampton Weekes to his father and brother, both called Richard. Another covers various individuals who had an impact on medical care in their time and place, including Thackrah, from Leeds, who developed Occupational Health, and helped found Leeds Medical School.

The appendices cover various medical conditions and treatments, and a final appendix covering the role of women in medicine in the period covered.

I thought the book was interesting although at times I found some of the writing repetitive, for instance Sir Astley Cooper is mentioned repeatedly, as is his fame. Once you’ve told me who he is, I don’t need reminding. The same can be said of the various Acts that regulated the apothecaries and surgeons. It slows the narrative down and feels like the chapters were written separately then shuffled together without editing. Other than that, it was definitely worth the reading time and gave me a lot in insight into the social and medical situation of the time. I think this book would definitely be useful for those interested in medical history,  and writers of historical fiction set in the period.



Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s