William Cheselden Giving an Anatomical Demonstration to Six Spectators in the Anatomy-theatre of the Barber-Surgeons' Company, London
In 1540, the same year that the Company of Barbers merged with the Surgeons’ Guild to become the Company of Barber-Surgeons, dissection became licensed. Subsequently, public dissections were held four times a year in Barber’s Hall; all “free” surgeons were required to attend. At that time surgeons went through an apprenticeship, which included the study of anatomy. But before 1832, legal dissections could only be carried out on the corpses of condemned criminals, and the Company kept careful control of the bodies in their charge. At times they had to defend themselves against the families of the deceased, who wanted to bury their relatives rather than have them dissected. Sometimes, after dissection was complete, the Company reportedly displayed the bodies in niches—two can be seen in the background of this painting. William Cheselden (1688-1752) was a leading surgeon during the reign of George II, admitted to the Company of Barber-Surgeons in 1710. In response to the lack of anatomy training at the time Cheselden began conducting private anatomy lessons in 1711, taking students away from the Company, who fined him in 1714. In 1713 he published The Anatomy of the Human Body, which became a standard text for the next 100 years. In 1733 his Osteographia or the Anatomy of Bones provided the first full and accurate description of the anatomy of human bones. As a surgeon he was known for his skill as a lithotomist. At the time, bladder calculi were usually removed with a midline perineal lithotomy, which was extremely risky. Cheselden, along with John Douglas, developed a procedure to remove bladder calculi through a suprapubic incision, publishing his results in 1723 in A Treatise on the High Operation for the Stone. Later, he discussed a lithotomy through a lateral perineal incision, which required minutes rather than hours and lowered mortality from a high rate to less than 10%. His success in this field led to his appointment as “first lithotomist” to Westminster, St. George’s, and St. Thomas’ Hospitals. In 1737, he retired to Chelsea Hospital. In 1738 he was elected an examiner of the Company of Barber-Surgeons, and then Warden in 1744. Cheselden believed that the surgeons should separate from the barbers, and had a key role in making that happen. In 1745, an Act of Parliament formed the Independent Company of Surgeons, which in 1800 became the Royal College of Surgeons of England. Notes by Mariann Smith. Image credit: Wellcome Library, London.
History of Medicine
Wellcome Collection, London