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I love reading surgical narratives — factual or fictional, old or new, but that of the 1800s definitely intrigues me the most, as folks who have traipsed by here already know. I was delighted to find an entertaining example of such in Herman Melville’s novel White Jacket. In fact, I think this particular scene is a literary gem, dripping with darkly comical mockery of nineteenth-century surgery in general.

Aside from the surgery, it is a very good book as a whole for those who enjoy things of the Melvillian, nautical sort (as I obviously do). I’m amused by the woes that befall the poor narrator because of his unfortunate, less-than-practical white jacket, the lavender-infused Selvagee who ought not have gone to sea, and the “fire it right into ’em” method of publishing. As for the beard massacre, however — the poor fellows! Rather distressing. There are many passages that are either informative or chuckle-inducing, much like the case with Moby Dick, except White Jacket lacks strong a driving motive like the obsessive hunt in his better-known tome. In White Jacket, the Neversink is simply…  going home.

Herman Melville, American author. Reproduction...

Herman Melville

Ah, but the surgery! — and what makes it the most fun and satirical, the surgeon. His name is Cadwallader Cuticle, M. D., and he is the learned surgeon of the fleet who loves to dive in the teaching role in the midst of operations. His person is mangled. His teeth — artificial. His eye — well, he only has one. He’s bald, scrawny, and could look much more lively. As expected, Cuticle is a devout collector of medical specimens and curiosities that have a tendency to horrify everyone but himself. And although he says he likes to avoid amputations if possible, he cannot hesitate when he sees a chance to take up the saw. Besides, it’s dull work for a surgeon on a man-of-war when there are no battles. This is his first major case in three years.

And Cuticle isn’t the only surgeon mentioned in the book. One cannot forget the aptly named surgeons Bandage, Wedge, Sawyer, and Patella. And while Cuticle’s colleagues are against the operation, all it takes is one lop-sided, deferential “yes” from young, obsequious Patella to encourage him to pronounce that an operation must take place immediately — at 10:00 tomorrow morning.

There are certain aspects of the scene that make it particularly entertaining to me. The surgery is performed not on a traditional operating table, but on a death-board. And, of course, a reference is made to the surgeon’s negligence of hand-washing — Cuticle offers Sawyer to wash at a basin after the procedure since it is time to eat dinner, but admits that he never uses it. A mere wipe of a handkerchief is suffice.* A sprinkling of anatomical jargon spills forth from Wedge, much to Cuticle’s annoyance, and much to my pleasure. Plus, there is the cadaverous appearance of the toothless Cuticle coupled with the presence of a skeleton (used for an educational prop) that sends the patient into a state of terror, who has a strong tendency to faint.

I did wince when one of the younger surgeons noted that Cuticle can remove a leg in one minute and ten seconds. All I could think was, “Liston could have done that so much faster, you sluggard!” But, sadly for the majority of non-fictional patients, Robert Liston’s speed was far from the norm.

Robert Liston (1794 - 1847), Scottish surgeon

Robert Liston–swiftest saw in 19th-century surgery

Melville ended up poking fun and pointing out lamentable realities at the same time in a very skillful manner. It got me excited, especially considering that many authors of fiction from that time period would shy away from the amount of grisly detail that Melville was brave enough to portray. (NOTE: The description of the amputation itself is not for the squeamish.)

*Now, Melville was obviously disturbed by this breach in hygiene. Bear in mind this book was written in the late 1840s… And it took several decades after that for hand-washing to fully catch on in the medical profession, even though Melville’s mentioning of this makes it obvious that some contemporaries of the general public found these habits disgusting. Very interesting.