The Medical Training of Jonathan Couch: a study


Q inherited and adapted a Couch scientific tradition dating back to his grandfather, Dr Jonathan Couch (1789-1870), F.L.S., of Polperro. It included Q’s uncle, Richard Quiller Couch (1816-1863), M.R.C.S., of Penzance, who with his A statistical investigation into the mortality of miners helped to establish the scientific link between health and locality. The Couch tradition came down to Q from his father, Thomas Quiller Couch (1826-1884) M.R.C.S., F.S.A., of Bodmin. All three published material of varying degrees of scientific importance.


The Medical Training of Dr Jonathan Couch, 1804 to 1810

All sources agree in seeing Jonathan Couch as an empiricist who believed in establishing facts through observation and experiment. He was cautious in assuming cause and effect relationships and looked upon the theories of science with a sceptical eye. His observations were invariably presented in clear, concise English free from simile, metaphor or personification. Behind Jonathan Couch lie the philosophies of David Hume and Adam Smith, the most distinguished members of the Scottish Enlightenment, along with John Hunter, its most distinguished physician.

The central figures of his time at the united medical school of Guy’s and St. Thomas’ were Henry Cline and Mr (later Sir Astley) Cooper, behind whom stood the man who revolutionised surgery in London, John Hunter. Jonathan was also influenced, although at the level of personal friendship, by Dr (later Sir William) Knighton. Other London influences are more difficult to establish. Humphry Davy, one of the three Davys at the Royal Institution between 1808 and 1810, was giving his famous public lectures on chemistry and it is difficult to believe that Jonathan did not avail himself of the opportunity of hearing his fellow Cornishman.

London was a place of new, exciting and indeed revolutionary ideas. It was also a place of prostitution, body-snatching and materialism. Only seventeen years before Jonathan’s arrival John Wesley, whom his forbears had known in Polperro, died in the capital and the city was very much the hub of Wesleyan Methodism. Dr Adam Clarke, who had also preached in Polperro, was in residence during Jonathan’s time.

Early Medical Training

Jonathan’s initial medical training occurred in his home area. Bertha Couch’s Life (1891) informs us that Jonathan left Bodmin Grammar School on December 9, 1803, aged 14, to become a pupil of John Rice, surgeon of East Looe, in February or March of 1804. Interestingly, in 1792, a former pupil of Bodmin Grammar School, where both Latin and Greek were taught, called William Clift, left Bodmin to become an assistant to William Hunter of London, the capital’s leading surgeon. Clift was recommended to Hunter because he could sketch. Before photography, surgeons had to preserve a record of their work through sketches. Jonathan had a similar facility. John Rice died in 1808, before Jonathan had completed his articles and the ‘country curriculum’ necessary for removal to London. He moved to Liskeard to work under Mr Lawrence. The ‘country curriculum’ usually lasted for six years, but Jonathan appears to have completed it in just over four. Liskeard had a population at the time of about 1,900. The smell of fish offal at Polperro, which almost overcame John Wesley when he preached there in 1768, and the notorious open sewers of Liskeard, prepared Jonathan for the stench he was later to confront at the hospitals in London.

Arrival in London

In October 1808, Jonathan Couch, assuming standard practice, arrived in London for a term lasting until May, then returning in October for a second term ending in May 1810. Jonathan was enrolling at the most prestigious medical school in England, run by leading doctors and surgeons. These individuals were endeavouring to establish medicine on scientific principles based on experiment and observation. It was a unique, exciting and controversial place to be and involved considerable expense.

Jonathan would have had to go to London with a letter of introduction from Mr Lawrence to a specific surgeon at Guy’s and St. Thomas’. These letters were usually to a surgeon known personally to the local practitioner. However, influence could also be brought to bear on a surgeon by a person of prominence in the community. We know of Lady Knighton’s biography of Sir William Knighton (1838) that the married sister of the Rev. Sir Harry Trelawney was a friend and confidant of the surgeon. Bertha Couch’s Life of her father (1891) informs us of the welcome Jonathan received at the house of Knighton in Hanover Square. However, Knighton was a surgeon at St. George’s Hospital, although he did know Henry Cline and Astley Cooper of Guy’s and St. Thomas’. Curiously, Bertha Couch’s Life fails to mention Cline, although Jonathan’s notes on the lectures of Henry Cline and Astley Cooper are preserved today in the special collection section of the Rubenstein Library at Duke University. This leads to the conclusion that Astley Cooper must have been the surgeon Lawrence’s letter was addressed to, in which case it would have been handed to Charles Osbaldeston, who conducted Cooper’s affairs (Bettany, 1885 p. 208).

The three leading surgeons in London were Mr (later Sir William) Knighton, Mr (later Sir Astley) Cooper and Henry Cline. All three had received part of their medical training in or from pre-eminent medical establishments of Glasgow and Edinburgh, where the influence of the Scottish Enlightenment, particularly associated with the names of David Hume and Adam Smith, was all pervasive. It was John Hunter who brought the belief in observation and experiment, supported by rigorous logic, south to London, where traditional theory, dating back to the time of the Greeks, still persisted. 1785 was Hunter’s year of ‘genius’, as Bettany describes it (1885, pp. 154-5), when he became the first person to tie the femoral artery. Hunter’s surgical lectures, which began in 1772, had a profound effect upon Henry Cline and John Abernethy, both of whom Jonathan Couch would have known, and through them to Astley Cooper (Bettany, 1885, pp. 203); and through Cline and Cooper to William Knighton. John Hunter disapproved of his pupils taking notes during his lectures as he regarded his opinions as tentative and provisional. Practice not theory guided his mind. Jonathan did take notes from Cline and Cooper.

Jonathan’s relationship with Cline and Cooper was that of teacher and pupil, with Knighton it was more complex. Bertha Couch informs us that Knighton received Jonathan to his home because of the physician’s friendship with Sir Harry Trelawney (1891, p. 24). Knighton was also associated with Sir Harry’s sister. Knighton lived in Hanover Square, the centre of his private practice. Some physicians took in pupils to supplement their income, or to provide specific services. John Hunter took in William Clift as his assistant and sketcher. Astley Cooper had been Henry Cline’s pupil at St. Thomas’ and his lodger at 12 St. Mary Axe. When Knighton returned from Edinburgh, two years before the arrival of Jonathan Couch, he had to establish a practice under conditions of considerable difficulty. Lady Knighton was to write of this time:

‘The anxieties and difficulties of the first outset in a profession in which so many competitors are very great; but the kind of patronage and influence of a limited number of persons of rank and consequence, to whom Dr Knighton’s ability had been known during his residence in Devonshire, tended essentially to his success;’ (1838, p. 80).

Bertha Couch suggests that Jonathan was welcome in Hanover Square not as a lodger but because of his abilities and aspirations. One of the persons of rank and influence in Devonshire was certainly the married sister of Sir Harry Trelawney. The sister lived near Devonport when Knighton was a surgeon at the Royal Naval hospital there.

Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospitals

The two Borough Hospitals of Guy’s and St. Thomas’, founded as charity institutions, were founded on opposite sides of Borough High Street, to the south of London Bridge. There was a united medical school, with pupils such as Jonathan Couch moving from one hospital to the other for dissections, lectures, operations and ward rounds. The academic term opened in October and closed in May. Jonathan completed two terms from 1808 to 1810. Bertha Couch informs us of Jonathan returning to Polperro for the vacations. Thus he retained his lieutenancy of the East and West Looe Voluntary Artillery, freeing him, at least in theory, from fear of the press-gang. The fate of Solomon Hymen in Q’s Mayor of Troy is a reminder of what could happen. Whether Jonathan travelled by coach or coastal trader to and from London is unclear.

Nor is it clear how Jonathan’s training was paid for. His father was a semi-invalid fish merchant. During times of war, when overseas markets were difficult of access, such a trade was problematic. Presumably, Jonathan’s time at Bodmin Grammar School was costly, and then there was probably a fee for apprenticeship to Rice and Lawrence. Medical training in London did not come cheap, unless like William Clift it involved working for the surgeon, in his case from six in the morning to midnight. One suspects that Cornwall’s largest land-owner, Sir Harry Trelawney, covered most if not all of the demand. The only other possible, but unlikely, source was Zephaniah Job, otherwise known as the ‘Smugglers’ Banker’. If it was Job there must have been a condition that Jonathan returned to practice in Polperro, which actually happened. However, Sir Harry is the most likely source.

The Autobiography of Sir Benjamin Brodie (1865) informs us that at the time Jonathan was in London, Brodie was lodging at 24 Sackville Street, a ‘very indifferent accommodation’, for ‘£100 per annum’. He then borrowed money from his mother to lease a property and ‘accommodate three pupils’. From his private practice he earned £200 to £300, with a further income from lectures. This is how young doctors began. Even if Jonathan lodged in London only from October to May, the expense was considerable (see Brodie, 1865, p. 85).

Accounts of the layout and procedures at Guy’s and St. Thomas’ rely mainly on Chapter VI of Eminent Doctors by G.T. Bettany (1885) and Chapters III and IV of Druin Burch’s Digging Up the Dead (2007). Bettany was a lecturer in chemistry at Guy’s Hospital while Burch is a member of the Royal College of Physicians.

Burch explains that the architecture of Guy’s and St. Thomas’ looked back to the hospitals of medieval monasteries, with quadrangles, cloisters, open fires and various floors. Guy’s had two very modern features, washbasins and flush toilets, things Jonathan Couch would scarcely have known. In Polperro and Looe excreta would have been thrown from buckets into the harbour and in Liskeard into the open sewers. This writer can remember his grandfather throwing the same from buckets into the River Tamar in the 1950s. Jonathan learned the lesson of good sanitation at Guy’s and insisted upon it when he had the moral authority to do so in Polperro. Years later, Thomas Quiller-Couch fought endless battles with the local council over the sanitation of the lower part of Bodmin. Jonathan passed his beliefs on to William Rendle. Johns informs us that Rendle was a Polperro-born surgeon who denounced the sewers in Liskeard and in about 1865 was appointed Medical Officer of Health for St. George’s parish in Southwark. John Quiller-Couch (1830-1900), Jonathan’s youngest son, worked as an assistant to Rendle before going on to Guy’s. In 1862, John finished his training and with the decease of Richard in 1863 took over the practice in Penzance. Q was later to visit the family of Richard in Penzance and must have known John, a somewhat irascible character, quite well. This established another direct link between Q and Jonathan (Johns, 2010, pp. 84-5; photograph p. 24).

Kelly’s Directory for 1856 gives Richard Quiller Couch of Chapel Street as a surgeon and as consulting surgeon of the public dispensary. The directory for 1893 gives John Quiller Couch as surgeon and medical officer and public vaccinator No. 5 district, Penzance Union, of 10 Chapel Street. Q used to stay with Richard Pearce Couch, son of Dr Richard Quiller Couch, of the company of Batten & Couch.

Most of the teaching happened at Guy’s amongst the incurables where experiment and innovation were possible. Bettany (1885, p. 206) quotes from an early pupil, Dr William Roots:

‘From the period of Astley’s (Cooper) appointment at Guy’s until the moment of his last breath, he was everything and all to the suffering and the afflicted…on an operating day, the moment Astley Cooper entered and the instrument was in his hand, every difficulty was overcome, and safety generally ensued.'

In his lectures he was amusing, with a propensity for the ‘absurd’. Jonathan was as captivated as many others. Guy’s possessed a purpose built lecture theatre, unique in London. The word theatre appears particularly appropriate for Cooper.

St. Thomas’ Hospital had been established to treat curable patients and Guy’s the incurable. Guy’s housed about four hundred in wards of thirty, and if Fitzharris (2017) is to be believed in considerable squalor. As patients were almost certainly destined to die, innovation, experiment and research were permissible, in a way not possible at St. Thomas’ where it was hoped that environment and nature would provide the cure. Both institutions drew from the Scottish medical establishment. Guy’s was singular in having a tradition steeped in religious and political dissent – not inappropriate for Jonathan.

According to Bettany, Astley Cooper moved from St. Mary Axe to New Broad Street in 1806, two years before Jonathan arrived in London. He rose at six, dissected until eight and occupied his consulting room until about midday, at which point he would exit to the stables and by Bishopsgate Church. At this time on Tuesdays and Fridays, when he usually did his rounds at Guy’s, students like Jonathan Couch would gather in the quadrangle, until Cooper’s carriage arrived. Cooper would alight and climb the stairs into the wards with his pupils crowding behind him, and stop at each bed surrounded by the eager throng, frightened of missing his most fleeting observation. Jonathan would have noticed his exemplary bedside manner and the way he gained the ‘confidence’ of his patients (Bettany, 1885, p. 216). At two the wards would be deserted as the pupils rushed across the street to St. Thomas’ Hospital in the hope of securing a ringside seat in the anatomical theatre, with the latecomers standing in ‘gangways and passages’. Cooper would then make his grand entrance and walk to the rotating table. Fitzharris informs us of St. Thomas’ receiving a ‘new anatomical theatre’ three years after Jonathan’s departure.

From the lecture theatre Cooper would go into the dissecting room accompanied by those who had paid an additional charge. Presumably for students this was covered by the initial fee at the beginning of the term. According to Burch the dissecting room used by Astley Cooper was the one previously used by Henry Cline and William Clift (Burch, 2007, p. 48). It was a room at St. Thomas’ whose windows, above a large sink, faced east, with display cases on the west wall. How often Jonathan must have washed off the gore into the blood-stained sink.

Bodies obtained legally from the hangman or illegally from the ‘resurrectionists’ (grave robbers) were laid out on the tables, with six to eight students gathered around each. Jonathan appears to have lasted the course in the dissecting room but many probably left or (like Richard Quiller Couch at Penzance in 1863) inadvertently pierced themselves with a poisonous substance from which they failed to recover. The absence of disinfectant and antibiotics left the students open to infection as it did to patients on the operating table. Burch’s detailed description recalls his own experience of dissection, although in more secure times (Burch, 2007, pp. 49–53). He estimates that each teacher required about one hundred corpses a year to fulfil teaching requirements, thus necessitating a considerable income from lectures and consulting fees. When Henry Cline lectured the charge was seven guineas, with a further five for dissecting (Burch, 2007, p. 60).

Astley Cooper might have been something of a showman and used the velvet glove with his patients, but with his pupils the iron hand was more in evidence. Johns provides a quotation from Cooper found in the notebook of a pupil. Cooper impressed upon his pupils that of the three to four thousand who had been taught by him, the ‘studious and attentive’ have ‘advanced to a responsible station’ while the ‘careless and idle’ who were addicted to the ‘public house’ met with nothing but ‘confusion and disappointment’ (Brock, 1952, p. 110). Jonathan was clearly one of the former.

Johns also draws attention to a letter from Jonathan Couch to his wife, dated August 31, 1838, found in Bertha Couch’s Life (1891, p. 82), written in London when he was making arrangements for the training of Richard at Guy’s, which presumably began in October. It mentions a meeting with Bransby Cooper, nephew of Astley. Richard entered Guy’s at the age of 19 and completed the course three years later in 1841. Johns states that Thomas followed Richard at Guy’s in 1849, and John in 1859. Thomas turned out to be a distinguished amateur artist, a facility he found useful at Guy’s. His day at the hospital lasted from ten to five, with the evenings spent writing up the lectures given by Bransby Cooper and others. John qualified as a surgeon apothecary and moved to Penzance. Johns concludes that John set up a practice in opposition to Richard, but 10 Chapel Street appears to be common to both (2010, p. 83-5).

Fitzharris describes the conditions in early nineteenth century hospitals as ‘unsanitary’, with infection all too probable. She highlights childbirth, with ‘puerperal fever’, ‘pelvic abscesses, haemorrhaging or peritonitis’ all too common. Problems did not only happen in hospitals, however, and physicians could do little. On returning from training in 1810 Jonathan Couch married Jane Prynn Rundle of Porthallow Farm in Talland, almost certainly the farm featured by Q in ‘I Saw Three Ships’. Bertha Couch’s Life describes how in twelve months Jonathan was a bachelor, a husband, a father and a widower. Jane died in childbirth. Johns suggests pyelonephritis resulting in septicaemia. The death took place on October 16, 1810, with the burial in Talland churchyard. Although Jonathan had been trained in a tradition of rationalism, he was firmly comforted by a vision of his wife some months afterwards (Couch, pp. 27-8; Johns, pp. 24-5).

Most surgeons avoided operations if possible and performed them with every speed. Fitzharris identifies Joseph Lister as one of the swiftest operators. John Abernethy experienced what is now called post-traumatic stress after difficult operations. The operating theatres usually consisted of a raised table on which the patient lay or an elevated chair, with a semi-circle of seats rising in rows for students and observers, and a skylight above the table for light. It was not until the 1860s, at the time when John Q. Couch was finishing his training, that Joseph Lister identified germ infection as the central problem in hospitals and antiseptics as the solution. Sadly, Jonathan Couch was dead before hospitals became places of genuine healing.

The Scottish Schools of Medicine

According to Bettany (1885, p. 204) the main influences on Astley Cooper during his time in Edinburgh (1787-8) were ‘Cullen, Black and Fyfe’, to which Gregory can be added. These influences must also have applied, directly or indirectly, to Cline and Knighton, and to others at Guy’s and St. Thomas’.

William Cullen (1710-1790) studied from 1734 to 1736 at Edinburgh Medical School and practised as a surgeon at Hamilton from 1737 to 1740, with William Hunter as his pupil. In 1740, Cullen took a M.D. degree at Glasgow, where in 1744 he established a medical school with Joseph Black as his pupil. In 1751, Dr Cullen, who was also a chemist and a botanist, succeeded to the Professorship of Medicine at Glasgow University. Adam Smith was appointed to the Chair of Logic at Glasgow in the same year. Four years later he transferred to Edinburgh as Professor of Chemistry and in 1757 began lecturing at the infirmary. During the next 18 years he established the first model for clinical lectures, using simplicity of expression and copious illustrations. He held to ‘rational views of medicine’ based on ‘fact and experiment’, not on theory and dogma, a position subsequently adopted by William Hunter (Bettany, 1885, p. 94).

In 1772, Cullen became sole Professor of the Practice of Physic at Edinburgh, with Black succeeding him in the Chair of Chemistry. One line Cullen developed was in identifying the influence of the nervous system on disease. Jonathan Couch was an early exponent of psychosomatic medicine, but whether any influence trickled through from Cullen is impossible to determine. Cullen continued to lecture until 1789, the year of Jonathan’s birth, dying in 1790.

James Gregory (1753-1821) was the son of John Gregory (d.1773). John had lectured alongside Cullen at Edinburgh and had been a friend of David Hume. After John Gregory died in 1773, James took the M.D. degree, spent two years studying medicine on the Continent, and was then appointed to his father’s Professorship in the Institute of Medicine at Edinburgh (1776). His clinical lectures at the infirmary continued for the next twenty years. In 1790, he succeeded Cullen to the Chair of the Practice of Medicine, holding it until his death in 1821. Gregory dismissed theory, emphasising the importance of diagnosing symptoms and observing the effects of various medicines.

James Gregory and John Bell, another influential Edinburgh physician, engaged in frequent controversy. Cooper came into controversial contact with Bell. Bettany includes a quotation from Sir Charles Bell, a Scottish surgeon mentioned by Lindsay Fitzharris for refusing surgery where possible, where he says ‘(John Bell) support(s) his reasoning by the authority of those who preceded him…Sir Astley Cooper…hates all authority which interferes with his popularity…omits all mention of his respectable contemporaries…’ but ‘flatters’ his ‘young men’, presumably pupils such as Jonathan Couch (1885, p. 113). One can understand how Jonathan fell under the spell. Significantly, Jonathan later showed a similar antagonism to ‘authority’.

Medicine in London

William and John Hunter

Two central figures in London medicine were Scottish brothers William Hunter (1718-1783), who was elected to the Royal Society in 1767 and a year later was appointed the first Professor of Anatomy to the Royal Academy, and the even more distinguished John Hunter (1728-1793), a surgeon at St. George’s Hospital in London and from 1767 a Fellow of the Royal Society. In Wendy Moore’s The Knife Man, John Hunter is portrayed as questioning the ‘accepted doctrines’ of traditional medicine, concerning himself with ‘innovation and experiment’ so as to establish ‘surgical practice on sound scientific principles’, a policy opposed by his fellow surgeons at St. George’s, especially as he courted controversy (Moore, 2005, p. 225). Although Hunter retained some traditional remedies, he advocated testing them against evidence. His preferred method was to let nature take its course, using surgery only when absolutely necessary (pp. 248-9). Students such as Cline, Cooper and Abernethy braved opposition from the Medical Establishment when attending his lectures, but were electrified by what they heard. Bettany informs us that Hunter delivered his lectures every other evening from October to April, between seven and eight in the evening. His private practice flowered so that during the last twenty years of his life, his income rose from £1000 to £6000, much of which he spent on his collections and on obtaining corpses from the ‘resurrectionists’.

Wendy Moore claims William Hunter’s ‘God-fearing outlook’, in marked contrast to John Hunter’s ‘iconoclastic views’, reflected the ‘contemporary world view’, dominated by ‘Religious dogma’ (ibid., p. 205). Yet many historians see the eighteenth century as rather irreligious. Roy Porter, in the introduction to his English Society in the Eighteenth Century, claims it to have been ‘capitalist, materialist, market-orientated; its temper worldly, pragmatic, responsive to economic forces’ (1990, p. 6). John Hunter, a product of David Hume, Adam Smith and the Scottish Enlightenment, appears much more in tune with the times than William.

John Hunter as a Fellow of the Royal Society, developed Enlightenment views in various disciplines. According to Moore one idea consisted in seeing life as having originated ‘spontaneously’ out of inorganic matter; others as ‘hermaphroditism’ as later expounded by Darwin and a form of evolution (Moore, 2005, pp. 287–8).

Bettany claims Hunter to have been neither a ‘materialist’ nor an ‘atheist’, believing in a ‘First Cause’ but giving little room to ‘revelation’ (Bettany, 1885, p. 163). Life could not be explained as a ‘Mere composition of matter’. Geological research led him to believe in water as the ‘chief agent’ of change, evidenced by the presence of ‘marine organisms in rocks’, leading him to suggest ‘oscillations of (sea) level and climate variation’, and a theory involving ‘development and evolution’ (ibid., pp. 163-4). Such views must have been passed on by Cline, Cooper and Abernethy. As a Fellow of the Royal Society, such views must have been passed on there, and eventually inherited by Humphry Davy.

Bettany quotes Dr Moxon on Hunter: ‘…the practical aim of his profession, (was) to establish sound laws for scientific surgery and medicine.’ In a quotation from Sir James Paget, Hunter had an ‘original’ mind secured in the ‘orderly accumulation of facts’. He knew nothing of ‘logic’, following ‘natural instinct’ and acute ‘observation’, with any generalisations presented as possibilities or probabilities, never certainties (Bettany, 1885, pp. 164–8). One cannot help contrasting Hunter’s humility with some scientists today.

William Clift

At the close of his life Hunter employed a Cornishman from Bodmin, William Clift, who ensured that his ideas were not forgotten and his legacy respected.

William Clift was born the son of Robert Clift at Burcombe, near Bodmin, on February 14, 1775; 88 years before Q was born in Bodmin. He attended Bodmin Grammar School, presumably as a day pupil, a few years before Jonathan Couch entered as a boarder, although subject, quite possibly, to the same headmaster, the Rev. Moses Morgan. At the age of 17, in February 1792, William was given the opportunity, through the kind offices of Major Gilbert and his wife, of going to London as an assistant to John Hunter. The offer was for a six-year apprenticeship, bed and board, but with additional duties. He arrived at the Hunter residence in Castle Street, Leicester Square, on February 14, 1792. Working from six in the morning to midnight, dissecting, note-taking and sketching, he fell under Hunter’s spell and continued at Castle Street until Hunter’s death on October 16, 1793.

In an age without photography, Hunter needed Clift’s artistic skills. These were honed in London by M. St. Aubin. From 1793 until 1799 Clift was Keeper of the Hunterian Museum and from 1799 Conservator when it moved to the Royal College of Surgeons, with its final home being at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Clift married A. Pope in 1799. W.H. Clift was born in 1803, was a M.R.C.S. and died young. The daughter, Amelia Clift, married Clift’s assistant, Richard Owen, C.B., F.R.S., (1802-1873), a correspondent of Jonathan Couch in later years.

William Clift devoted himself to the memory and work of William Hunter. On May 8, 1823, he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society and would have known Humphry Davy and Davies Gilbert. Until the 1832 Reform Act Gilbert was M.P. for Bodmin. In 1849, Clift resigned as Conservator and died on June 20 of that year, with Highgate Cemetery as his final resting place.

When Jonathan Couch arrived at London in October 1808, William Clift was Conservator at the Royal College of Surgeons. Jonathan used the same technique of sketching dissections. This is described by Q, in relation to fish, in the short story of ‘Dr Unonius’. Henry Cline and Astley Cooper would have had some association with Clift, as they revered Hunter’s memory, as would Knighton. It seems far from improbable that Jonathan Couch knew William Clift when in London, and learned something from him.

The Autobiography of the Late Benjamin Brodie, edited by his son from private papers and published in 1865, gives a personal view of Clift by someone who knew him from the time when he was Conservator of the Hunter Museum at the College of Surgeons, post-1799. Brodie understood that in the early 1790s, John Hunter was looking for an assistant he could personally educate for his ‘anatomical museum’. A Mrs Gilbert of Cornwall suggested a ‘very clever boy’, with artistic talents, but whose ‘education had probably not extended beyond reading and writing’ (which was incorrect). Mrs. Gilbert negotiated with John Hunter and Clift took up residence in the Hunter household.

Following Hunter’s death in 1793, his ‘executors’, namely Mr (later Sir) Everard Hume (d.1832) of St. George’s Hospital, whose sister was Hunter’s wife, and Dr Baillie (d.1823), nephew of William Hunter and principal lecturer in the Anatomical School of Great Windmill Street, had Parliament purchase the Hunter Museum and place it in the care of the College of Surgeons, with Clift as Conservator.

Brodie observed that Clift had ‘sagacity, great powers of observation, and great memory, but he wanted the method a better early education would have afforded him’. He was also devoted to the promulgation of Hunter’s legacy and won the ‘affection of all who knew him’ (1865, pp. 65–67).

In 1808, the year that Jonathan Couch arrived in London, Clift was Conservator in the Hunter Museum at the College of Surgeons, and was assisting Brodie with ‘dissections…in comparative anatomy’ (ibid., p. 83). Brodie was assistant-surgeon to St. George’s Hospital and delivering lectures on surgery at the anatomical theatre in Great Windmill Street. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society and a member of ‘A Society for the Promotion of Animal Chemistry’ associating with persons such as Humphry Davy, Davy’s friend and physician William Babington, and William Clift. Clift and Davy must have known each other reasonably well. Whether Jonathan Couch availed himself of the wealth of lectures and facilities outside of the medical school of Guy’s and St. Thomas’ is unknown, but it is distinctly possible that he did.

Henry Cline

Henry Cline (1750-1827) was one of a group of distinguished students who from 1772 attended the lectures of John Hunter, in spite of opposition from the London medical establishment. Hunter demanded of his listeners great attention as he subverted past opinion, presented original ideas and espoused independent thinking (Bettany, 1885, p. 145). Cline was also a student of the vaccination procedures of Dr Edward Jenner, performing the ‘first successful vaccination in London’ in about 1798 (ibid., p. 180). In 1808, the year Jonathan Couch arrived in London, the National Vaccine Institution was founded, with Jonathan as an early convert to the process. Interestingly, about this time, Jenner received a testimony of appreciation from the chiefs of the ‘Five Nations Indians’, a confederation featuring in Q’s novel Fort Amity, published about a hundred years later (ibid., p. 194).

Bettany includes a character sketch of Cline drawn by Astley Cooper. Cooper calls Cline a ‘Deist’, which is probably what John Hunter was; but Jonathan Couch was not, possibly having read John Wesley’s A Letter to the Reverend Doctor Conyers Middleton (1683-1750), a Cambridge Deist, the latter part of which was included in Wesley’s A Plain Account of Genuine Christianity of 1753. Cline was also a ‘Democrat’, mixing in radical circles. Cooper sees him as a good surgeon, but in anatomy only ‘sufficiently informed’! (ibid., p. 203). In 1784, Cline and Abernethy were surgeons to John Hunter, who died shortly afterwards, with Astley Cooper as Cline’s pupil (ibid., p. 203). 1791 saw Cline and Cooper holding a joint lectureship in anatomy and surgery at St. Thomas’. The hospitals of Guy’s and St. Thomas’ were known as Borough Hospitals. They stood on opposite sides of the street, near London Bridge, and functioned as a unit. The posts were unpaid but prestigious enough to attract private patients to the surgeons (Burch, 2007, pp. 33–4).

According to Druin Burch, Henry Cline moved in radical circles. Deism and Democracy went hand in hand. Cline believed in a deity and an ordered universe, but not in revelation or religious dogma. Both political and religious authorities were anathema to him. Although not a Deist, Jonathan was or became something of a radical. He supported the Reform Bill of 1832. In 1814, he led Polperro Methodists out of Anglicanism and in the 1830s led a democratic schism in Methodism. The two years Jonathan spent under Cline could not have been happy for the physician, partly because of his political associations and partly because of his professional outspokenness, causing him in 1811 to resign his position at St. Thomas’ Hospital.

Towards the close of the Napoleonic War London was a place of exciting intellectual ideas and moral depravity. It has been estimated that ten per cent of the female population lived by prostitution. Street violence was common. While surgeons such as Cline, Cooper and Knighton lived in large houses and mixed with the wealthy and the privileged, the majority of people were poor and even destitute. Burch (2007) informs us that after Astley Cooper arrived in London he availed himself of all its illicit opportunities. This does not appear true of Jonathan Couch whose Methodism held firm.

Adam Clarke

John Wesley died in London in 1791, 17 years before Jonathan arrived. John’s ‘conversion’ had taken place at Aldersgate Street on May 24, 1738, three days after his brother Charles, and London remained the centre of the movement, with Charles eventually residing permanently in the city. London also became the permanent residence of Dr Adam Clarke D.D., ordained Anglican, Wesleyan preacher and distinguished academic. Bertha Couch (1891) informs us of Clarke’s visit to the Methodists of Polperro when the original meeting room – as described by Q in story two from Parents and Children – was still in operation. This must have been when Clarke was a travelling preacher in the East Cornwall Circuit from August 1784 to 1785, at which point he was moved to Plymouth. His preaching at St. Austell effected the conversion of a semi-literate shoemaker called Samuel Drew. Drew later became the editor of the Imperial Magazine, which published a number of Jonathan’s early studies, and eventually a metaphysician of national importance.

Biographies of Dr Adam Clarke provide some interesting additional information. In 1783, Clarke was in a Methodist mission to Guernsey, one of the centres for the contraband trade. Q uses the epithet ‘Guernsey merchant’ for a smuggler in the novel The Mayor of Troy. Clarke lodged with a Mr De Jersey at Mon Plaiser, near St. Peters. The records of Zephaniah Job of Polperro, someone who appears as a character in a number of Q’s stories, and whose records have been made available by J.R. Johns in The Smugglers’ Banker (1997) frequently mentions a merchant company called Jersey and De Lisle of Guernsey. Contact between St. Peters and Polperro was frequently effected between 1778 and 1786 through a smuggling and privateering craft, with 16 carriage guns, called the Swallow, owned by Job and the Quillers, forbears of Q. Also associated with the Swallow was Captain William Johns, a Methodist friend of Richard Couch, Q’s father, the Methodist Captain John Tackabird of Q’s short stories.

The De Jersey merchants had an office in London run by William De Jersey. Jersey and De Lisle were one of four principal Guernsey merchant houses. Johns informs us of £30,500 being credited to Jersey and De Lisle in the accounts of Job between 1778 and 1789 (1997, pp. 39-46 and 109–118). The Rev. Sir Harry Trelawney, J.P., also had business dealings with Job. It is possible for Job and his associates to have part-funded Jonathan’s medical training in London, forwarding money through merchants like William De Jersey, although no evidence exists. However, as the facility existed, it seems likely for the Couches to have used it, making the carrying of large sums unnecessary.

In 1787, Dr Adam Clarke was again in Guernsey, along with John Wesley and Dr Thomas Coke. On Thursday, September 6, according to Wesley’s Journal, John Wesley boarded a boat for Penzance as he had an important meeting to attend in Bristol. Adam Clarke relates (see Etheridge, 1958, p. 102; Johns, 2010, p. 170) how the winds proved contrary, but after kneeling in prayer they immediately changed and a swift passage was effected. Clarke comments: ‘Such answers to prayer he was in the habit of receiving and therefore to him the occurance was not strange’. Such ‘occurance(s)’ help to explain how Wesley retained his confidence when almost every hand was raised against him.

If Wesley had inquired into the nature of the cargo the boat was carrying, he might have been less pleased. Maybe the ship’s captain thanked God for a fair wind and swift passage, free from any interference by the Royal Navy, in what might be termed the ‘Law of Unexpected Consequences’. The Inspector of Customs at Troy in The Mayor of Troy was Mr Pennefather, who had previously been the same in Penzance around 1787. It must have been Wesley’s visit of 1787, or his last in 1789, that a young Humphry Davy heard him preach and received a blessing (Friday, August 21, 1789). In later life Davy showed no signs of Methodist influence.

Dr Adam Clarke had two close friends in Penzance, both industrialists and bankers, William and Joseph Carne. William Carne (1754-1836) was a banker and an industrialist, and a long-time friend of John Wesley. His son Joseph Carne (1782-1858) was made a Fellow of the Royal Society, probably on the recommendation of Davies Gilbert or Humphry Davy, in 1818. He specialised in geology and mineralogy. His daughter, Elizabeth Carne (1817-1873), was a director of Carne’s Bank and a geologist. The Bronte novelists of Haworth possessed Carne blood through their grandmother. Humphry Davy would have known the Carne and Branwell families well.

At some point in his Cornish ministry Adam Clarke was brought before a local magistrate for field preaching without a license. The magistrate happened to be the Rev. Sir Harry Trelawney, who had similarly indulged when young. Trelawney advised ordination, which was eventually carried out by Bishop Bagot of Bristol. Because of his intellectual integrity and academic credentials Clarke was asked by the Speaker of the House of Commons, in February 1808, to arrange the state papers of the Public Records of the Kingdom. This was confirmed on March 25, 1808, and continued until 1818. He was therefore resident in London, no doubt preaching every Sunday, at the time Jonathan was in training. It seems likely that they met during this time.

The Physical Society at Guy's Hospital

Guy’s Hospital had traditionally been a locus of dissent. In the 1790s, three strands of thought, emanating from the Scottish Enlightenment, the French Revolution and Deism, united in the Physical Society. The society dated from 1771, met weekly during term time in the operating theatre at Guy’s and attracted to its lectures and discussions the leading members of the Borough Hospitals and outside intellectuals, many of them members of the Royal Society. Its influence was all-pervasive. It was founded to advance medicine and surgery, but the boundaries were porous (Burch, 2007, pp. 40–1).

As the 1780s merged into the 1790s, with the events of France coming to a climax, the Physical Society came under the influence of a group of leading radicals: Henry Cline, his pupil Astley Cooper, John Horne Tooke and John Thelwall. John Hunter centred himself at the Royal Society, but his shadow must have fallen across all. The Royal Society and the Physical Society must have been the intellectual centres of London.

Bettany informs us of Hunter’s belief in a ‘First Cause’ and his disbelief in pure materialism, because ‘Mere composition of matter does not give life…Life is a property we do not understand’ (Bettany, 1885, pp. 163–4). Hunter was also a Tory who distrusted radicals. Burch calls him a ‘vitalist’ who rejected a mechanistic view of man and believed in the necessity of a ‘soul’ (Burch, 2007, p. 73). Henry Cline, however, surrounded himself with radicals, Tooke and Thelwall being two, but followed Hunter in rejecting atheism and pure materialism. Burch includes a quotation from Astley Cooper that Cline believed in a ‘cause superior to men, a prevailing law, influence or deity’ (2007, p. 45). Bettany continues: ‘In politics a Democrat, living in friendship with Horne Tooke…in religion a Deist’ (Bettany, 1885, p. 203). This distinguished Hunter from the rationalist and atheist David Hume.

The weekly lectures at the Physical Society in Guy’s Hospital could attract large and distinguished audiences, as when John Thelwall rose on Saturday, January 26, 1793, five days after the guillotining of the French king in Paris, to deliver a paper on ‘Animal Vitality’. This amounted to a virtual attack on John Hunter’s previous addresses to the Royal Society. Thelwall’s radicalism led him to dismiss all authorities, including John Hunter, daringly taking John Hunter’s iconoclasm as a justification. Thelwall dismissed ‘vitalism’ and the ‘soul’ as superstitious beliefs, arguing instead for a mechanistic and materialistic approach to human existence, with electricity as the key to life and the brain as the central organ. The resulting discussion, according to Burch, lasted for over four hours.

As accurate news of the French Revolution penetrated Britain – nowhere more quickly than Polperro which had direct links with Brittany – attitudes to political radicalism, atheism and materialism began to change. In December 1793, with Britain at war with France, radicals like Tooke and Thelwall fell under suspicion. On 14 December Astley Cooper introduced a paper by Thelwall ‘On the Origin of Mental Action explained on the System of Materialism’, which gave rise to more dissension than the paper of January (Burch, 2007, p. 134). On January 20, 1794, Thelwall and the London Corresponding Society decided to call a ‘General Convention of the People’, informing the Physical Society of their move. Discussion of Thelwall’s paper continued for some weeks at the Physical Society, but when the presidency no longer lay with Cooper the discussion was closed down. Thelwall and his supporters resigned, and Thelwall was subsequently arrested by the government. Thelwall’s materialism and atheism, with the implication of man as a form of animal and the social order as simply convention capable of being overturned by violent revolution, lost its appeal, even to the point of appearing seditious (ibid., pp. 135–6).

The Wesleyanism of Jonathan Couch tended to conservatism, Wesley having been a Tory and an Anglican priest, yet John Rowe in Cornwall in the Age of the Industrial Revolution (1953) explains that all was not as it seemed. The democratic sentiment of the American War of Independence and the French Revolution had a counterpart in Wesley’s ‘doctrine of Justification by Faith’. The consequences of Wesley’s doctrines was pointed out to him in correspondence with a ‘John Smith’, thought to have been Thomas Secker, Bishop of Oxford and later Archbishop of Canterbury, between 1745 and 1748. Wesley replied that he could not be held responsible for ‘what may happen a hundred years hence’. In Cornwall it took not a hundred years. On June 14, 1791, before Wesley was even dead, 51 Methodist laymen met in Redruth demanding lay control and an end to the ‘priesthood of Conference’. These laymen included merchants, mine captains and engineers, like Richard Trevithick Snr., and surgeons. A revival in 1799 saw a considerable increase in Cornish Methodism, growing demands for separation from Anglicanism and an attack upon the sect in the Anti-Jacobin Press by the Rev. Richard Polwele of Manaccan. Polperro could not have been immune from such influences, especially as east Cornwall tended to be more radical than the west.

Into the new century Henry Cline continued to succour the political radicals and in 1813 resigned from Guy’s through a sense of growing alienation, while Astley Cooper progressively distanced himself from his former associates. Cooper became a Fellow of the Royal Society, being awarded its Copley medal for his work on the ear, and would have come across Humphry Davy and Davies Gilbert. Just before Jonathan arrived in 1808, Cooper operated successfully for a tumour in the neck (carotid aneurysm), a procedure written up in Medico-Chirurical Transactions. By this time Cooper was no longer a radical idealist, except in surgery, eventually adopting Toryism. His belief in materialism also abated, surrendering himself in death with the whisper ‘God’s will be done!’ (Burch, 2007, p. 251).

Sir William Knighton

In Bertha Couch’s Life of Jonathan Couch (1891), Sir William Knighton is mentioned first, Sir Astley Cooper second and Henry Cline not at all. In Bettany’s Eminent Doctors (1885), pages 203 to 226 are devoted to Cooper. There is no extended section devoted to Cline although he is frequently referred to. Cooper called Cline the ‘old master’ because he was the link back to John Hunter. Bettany makes it clear that in Cline the ‘spirit of Hunter’s teaching’ lived (1885, p. 203); and through Hunter the medical schools of the Scottish Enlightenment and the thought of David Hume and Adam Smith penetrated London. Bettany scarcely mentions William Knighton at all. Yet the Autobiography of the Late Sir Benjamin Brodie gives Sir Everard Hume, Mr Cline and Sir William Knighton as physicians to King George IV (Brodie, 1865, p. 132).

William Knighton was born at Beer Ferris in Devon in 1776, 13 years before Jonathan Couch was born at Polperro. Beer Ferris is a village but a mile to the east of the River Tamar. He was a Dumnonian Celt, as was Q’s mother, which geneticists regard as a different type of Celt to the Cornish. However, Knighton’s accent would not have differed markedly from Couch’s, except for having slightly longer vowels. Stress would have followed the Celtic pattern in being penultimate.

The Memoir of Sir William Knighton by Lady Knighton, formerly Miss Hawker of a distinguished Devon family, published in 1838, informs us of William’s apprenticeship to Mr Bredall, a surgeon and apothecary of Tavistock – just as Jonathan was to Mr Rice of East Looe and Mr Lawrence of Liskeard. During his apprenticeship Knighton became acquainted with Dr Francis Geach, surgeon of the Royal Naval Hospital in Devonport, now part of Plymouth. For some unspecified reason Geach was unpopular with his fellow medics, although Knighton regarded him highly.

Lady Knighton informs us of William’s journey to London at the age of 19, presumably in 1795, to study surgery under Astley Cooper and anatomy under Henry Cline. Bettany informs us of Cooper’s having spent the winter term of 1787–8 at Edinburgh studying surgery under Cullen, Black and Fyfe, and on returning to London of having attended the lectures of John Hunter. In 1793, Cooper and Cline were lecturing and demonstrating at Guy’s and St. Thomas’, with William Knighton as a pupil. There is no doubt that Knighton absorbed the Hunter influence.

In the spring of 1796 Knighton was back in Devonport as assistant-surgeon to Dr Geach at the Royal Naval Hospital. Geach introduced him to ‘Mrs. T., sister to the late Sir Harry T.’ , as Lady Knighton wrote (1938, p.24). This is the Rev. Sir Harry Trelawney of Trelawne who died in 1836 and his married sister. For a number of years ‘Mrs. T.’ was to be William Knighton’s confidant. At some point William came into direct contact with Sir Harry Trelawney (ibid., p. 45). One suspects, however, that there was some contact between the Trelawneys and the Hawkers as they were of a similar social and religious caste. Both William Knighton and Jonathan Couch owed something to the kind offices of Sir Harry.

In 1803, Knighton returned to London but then went north to Scotland, as had Astley Cooper, where Edinburgh offered him further qualifications. By 1806 he was back in London, fully qualified, to establish himself in private practice. Even though he became a member of the Royal College of Surgeons, Lady Knighton recalled how difficult it was to compete with the distinguished doctors in London. However, from his private residence in Hanover Square he gradually became known and respected, partly through the influence of the Trelawneys.

There is no evidence of Knighton lecturing at the united medical school of Guy’s and St. Thomas’ which Jonathan entered in 1808. Jonathan’s relationship with Knighton must initially have been personal, through the kind offices of Sir Harry Trelawney, rather than professional, although it appears that Knighton quickly realised the quality of the young man. One can assume that at some point Knighton inducted Jonathan into the opportunities and vagaries of private practice.

A major breakthrough came to Knighton a year later. On July 24, 1809, he accompanied Lord Wellesley and his army to Spain, returning in October. Many people, places and incidents preserved in Knighton’s journal reappear in Q’s Peninsula War stories, although in Q’s case they probably came from Napier. These months must have given Knighton an insight into the nature of battlefield wounds. Such wounds would have been known to Jonathan from his time spent with Mr Rice of East Looe. Many a Looe and Polperro privateer, those for instance belonging to the Quillers, would have returned to port with sailors suffering from fractures, shattered limbs and rotting wounds.

Years after Jonathan left London, Sir William Knighton was ‘Lord Byron’s medical attendant for some time previously to his marriage’  as Lady Knighton describes (1838, p. 421). Byron was a poet Q highly regarded, although only after he had left England and Knighton’s care. Knighton also waited on the king, hence the knighthood.

Sir Benjamin Brodie came to know William Knighton in 1818. He states that on his return from Edinburgh he took a house in Maddox Street and had to struggle to build up a practice. He was ‘imperfectly educated’ but had ‘great sagacity’ and ‘excellent judgment’. He had ‘great influence over the minds of others’ because he could enter into the ‘views and interests’ of his friends. Because of the poverty of his youth and the struggle he had in establishing himself in the world, he had one ‘principal failing’, namely ‘too great an anxiety to amass a fortune’ (Brodie, 1865, pp. 121–124). It is easy to see how Jonathan was captured by Knighton, but he never succumbed to Knighton’s materialism.

Lady Knighton was originally from a distinguished Devon family called Hawker. On the death of a child, William received a letter of religious consolation from a Rev. Robert Hawker D.D., yet there is no mention of a close relationship. Robert came from a line of clerics and doctors:

  • Jacob Hawker, surgeon, Mayor of Exeter, 1744
  • Rev. Robert Hawker, D.D., vicar of Charles, Plymouth
  • Jacob Stephen Hawker, doctor, Holy Orders from 1813
  • Robert Stephen Hawker, born Plymouth 1805, vicar of Morwenstowe and writer.

Astley Paston Cooper

The surgeon Jonathan Couch came under was Astley Cooper (1768-1841). Cooper originated from Norfolk and never completely lost his accent. He was initially trained at St. Thomas’ Hospital by Henry Cline but travelled to Edinburgh in 1787 to spend a year at the feet of Gregory, Cullen, Black and Fyfe. He returned to London in 1788 and attended the lectures of John Hunter. In 1789, the year Jonathan was born, he was appointed to St. Thomas’ even though aged but 21. There followed a separation of surgery, on which he lectured, from anatomy, on which Cline lectured. In his lectures he followed the Scottish model of emphasising practice over theory. In 1800, he was appointed surgeon at Guy’s where he was a noted dissector. The appointment enabled him to build up a private practice. A year before Jonathan arrived in London Cooper was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, where he would have associated with the likes of Humphry Davy and Davies Gilbert.

Humphry Davy became President of the Royal Society in 1820, the same year that Cooper became surgeon to George III. Astley’s nephew was Bransby Cooper, who was at Guy’s Hospital when Jonathan called to make arrangements for Richard Quiller Couch’s training at the hospital in 1835. Bransby invited Jonathan to call on Sir Astley (Couch, 1891, pp. 82–3). As Cooper was the great dissector, Jonathan Couch’s dissection of fish, which proved the basis of his book The Fishes of the British Islands, must have followed his teacher’s techniques.

Bettany provides first-hand information about Cooper from one of his previous pupils, Dr Pettigrew. We are informed that Cooper was the ‘idol of the Borough School’, who because of his ‘generosity’, ‘manner’ and ‘temper’, along with professional ‘enthusiasm’, shaped the lives of ‘hundreds of students’. When he spoke, particularly in the ‘theatre of Guy’s’, a ‘profound silence’ fell, with every word awaited in ‘breathless anxiety’. His operations showed skill, ‘elegance’ and an attention to detail, including the dressing of the wound. He exhibited the touch of ‘an artist’ (1885, pp. 217-8).

Cooper employed a number of assistants as dissectors, artists and amanuenses; one possibly being Jonathan Couch. These worked in his ‘private dissecting-rooms’ where entry was restricted. William Clift attended some of Cooper’s lectures, calling one an ‘overpowering discourse’ (ibid., . 220), following Cooper’s appointment as Professor of Comparative Anatomy at the Royal College of Surgeons in 1813. This was in addition to being a Fellow of the Royal Society, a Member of the Royal Medical and Physical Societies of Edinburgh, and Lecturer on Anatomy and Surgery and Surgeon to Guy’s Hospital (Burch, 2007, pp. 175–6).

The following is a reconstruction of Cooper’s day at Guy’s and St. Thomas’ between 1808 and 1810 from information provided by Burch:

6 am Rose from sleep
6.15 – 7.30 Worked with John Saunders in the dissecting room above the stables
7.30 – 8.00  Breakfasted on hot buttered rolls and tea. Read newspaper
9.00 – 1.00 Received paying patients who negotiated a fee through an attendant. Often minor operations were performed, one resulting in a payment of £1000
1.00 Exited house and went by carriage to Guy’s and St. Thomas’. Medical students, sometimes over 100, waited in the quadrangle at Guy’s and then accompanied Cooper on his rounds of the wards, lasting ½ to ¾ of an hour. On operating days the students crowded into the operating theatre. Cooper worked elegantly, swiftly and did the dressing. On lecture days he spoke for about an hour
3.00 - 6.00 Home visits to private patients
7.00 Main meal of the day
8.00 Occasional lecture or social occasion, sometimes with students


Astley Cooper’s wealth and reputation continued to grow, until he became surgeon to King and Parliament. In the 1830s his reputation declined, as did his radicalism and atheism. He died in 1841, committing his soul to God.


1768, August 23 Born to the Rev. Samuel and Maria Cooper of Shotesham, Norfolk
1771 The Physical Society is founded at Guy’s Hospital, in London, to meet in term time, from October to May, on a weekly basis, to discuss matters medicinal, surgical and related
1784 Henry Cline is elected surgeon at St. Thomas’ Hospital, soon becoming the centre of a radical group eventually including John Horne Tooke and John Thelwall.
Astley Cooper apprenticed to his uncle, William Cooper, senior surgeon of Guy’s Hospital.
October 2 Astley Cooper is accepted as a member of the Physical Society, but neglects it for a life of dissipation
1785 Astley Cooper’s apprenticeship is transferred to Henry Cline, in whose house at St. Mary Axe he resides
1785-6 He devotes himself to surgery. Elected to the committee of the Physical Society. Attends John Hunter’s lectures on ‘The Principles of Surgery’
1787-8 Spends the winter term in Edinburgh under Cullen, Gregory, Black and Stewart
1788 Returns to London in the autumn
1789 Becomes Demonstrator at Guy’s
July The Bastille is stormed
1791 Cline offers him a lectureship in Surgery @ £120 per annum, starting in the autumn.
John Thelwall attends the lectures at Guy’s and St. Thomas’ and at the home of John Hunter
November 21

Astley Cooper weds Ann Cock and gains dowry of £14,000


1792 May Ann and Astley travel to Paris, but return to London in September following the massacre of 1,500 people
1793 At the Physical Society John Thelwall delivers a lecture on ‘Animal Vitality’ which combines radicalism, materialism and irreligion. The intellectual authority of John Hunter is challenged. Controversy attracts large audiences
1793 John Hunter dies
January 25 Members of the Physical Society reject the teachings of John Thelwall, resulting in the resignation of Thelwall and Tooke
May 13 Thelwall, Horne Tooke and Thomas Hardy are arrested. Cline visits them in prison. The three are released
1796 Astley Cooper travels to Germany on a professional visit
1797-8 Cooper increases his lecturing
1797 Moves to St. Mary Axe, with John Saunders as his assistant and Charles Osbaldeston as his servant
1798 Thirty years of age

Becomes Senior Surgeon at Guy’s with a starting salary of £1,100

Cooper and Harrison, treasurer of Guy’s, establish a medical school

1804 Fellow of the Royal Society; Member of the Royal Medical and Physical Societies of Edinburgh; Lecturer on Anatomy and Surgery to Guy’s Hospital; practising at Guy’s and St. Thomas’ Hospitals
1808-1810 Jonathan Couch’s two terms at the united medical school of Guy’s and St. Thomas’.
Cooper viewed as the idol of the Borough Hospitals, drawing large crowds of pupils to his lectures, dissections and ward rounds
1809 January Publishes accounts of two operations for carotid aneurysm in Medico-Chirurgical Transactions
1813 Professor of Comparative Anatomy to the Royal College of Surgeons
1815 Income for the year, £21,000
1820 Surgeon to King and Parliament
1827 January 2 Henry Cline dies
1830s Reputation in decline.
1841   Saturday, February 12 Dies worth half a million pounds, his atheism and radicalism much abated

London in 1808

When Jonathan Couch arrived at London in October 1808, he encountered an intellectual scene in ferment, with old certainties being overturned and new methods coming to the fore. In the hospitals, medicine was being established on a scientific basis. The human body was being dissected, Edward Jenner was promoting vaccination and Charles Bell was investigating the nervous system. Observation and experiment were triumphing over theory and received opinion. In chemistry, geology and biology, new discoveries were revolutionising the subjects, with Humphry Davy’s lectures at the Royal Institution as a catalyst. In politics, the reverberations of the French Revolution were still echoing around an increasingly repressive government. In religion, Wesleyanism was challenging the authority of the Church of England in many areas.

It is east to romanticise the arrival of Jonathan Couch in the capital: the innocent country boy from a sleepy coastal village entering wide-eyed and open mouthed. Such was not the case. Polperro was a trading and fish exporting port with close contacts in Brittany, Iberia and Italy. As a fish merchant Richard Couch, Jonathan’s father, would have dealt with merchants at Leghorne and other Italian ports. Maritime contact opened the area to the influences of the American War of Independence, the French Revolution and the Napoleonic War. And unlike John Hunter and others in the capital, Jonathan was fluent in Latin and possibly Greek, even before he entered Grammar School. If John Davy’s Life of his brother is to be taken at face value, Jonathan had a better grasp of Latin and Greek than Humphry Davy (Davy, 1839, p. 4); and certainly better than William Clift.

What would have come as a surprise when entering London was the level of prostitution in the streets, to which a young Astley Cooper appears to have succumbed, and the rampant materialism of the doctors and surgeons, to which Astley Cooper certainly succumbed, leaving half a million at his death (Burch, 2007, p. 251). On this Jonathan eventually turned his back, returning to Polperro in 1810. Bertha Couch informs us that Jonathan’s first medical teacher, Mr John Rice of East Looe, was a man of ‘sterling integrity’ who ‘never sought money for its own sake’. Jonathan followed Rice’s example.

What must have excited Jonathan’s intelligence in London were new methods, facts and ideas, firstly regarding medicine, and secondly regarding the sciences in general.  It is interesting to see the degree to which doctors and surgeons were in the intellectual van. At the Royal Society and at other similar bodies, the medical profession was well represented. Even London politics had its radicals such as Cline and Cooper, although Cooper was withdrawing from active involvement by 1808. A number of Humphry Davy’s closest friends were physicians. In Consolations in Travel, Eubathes is probably based on Dr Wollaston (Davy, 1839, p. 432), while Salmonia is dedicated to William Babington of Guy’s Hospital, a doctor Jonathan Couch would have encountered. Even if Jonathan did not attend Davy’s lectures at the Royal Institution, he would have received the backwash from them. And if he never met Humphry, he might well have met John or Edmund Davy, especially as John was in the medical profession.

Sir Humphry Davy

In the spring of 1801, Humphry Davy became assistant lecturer at the Royal Institution in London, with elevation to a professorship following in 1802. Humphry Davy gave his first lecture on April 25, 1801. These continued at varying intervals until 1812. According to the Dictionary of National Biography the laboratory at the Royal Institution from 1804 to 1812 was run by his cousin, Edmund Davy (1785-1857). It also states that John Davy (1790-1868), Humphry’s younger brother and biographer, was during this time studying medicine in Edinburgh. However, John Davy’s biography records that John was at the Royal Institution from 1808 to 1811. All three Davys were resident in London at the time Jonathan Couch was at medical school. Humphry Davy’s physician and friend was William Babington (1756-1833), who worked at Guy’s from 1795 to 1811, and who had a subsidiary interest in chemistry and mineralogy. Humphry dedicated Salmonia to William Babington M.D., F.R.S., ‘in gratitude for an uninterrupted friendship of a quarter of a century’.

A close friend of Humphry Davy from the days of his youth was the scientist and politician Davies Giddy or Gilbert. Gilbert was involved in Davy’s move from Bristol to London in 1801 and the terms of his employment. Gilbert was also a friend and relation of Thomas Bond of Looe. Jonathan Couch served as a lieutenant under Captain Thomas Bond of the East and West Looe Voluntary Artillery (disbanded 1809). Bond appears as Captain AEneas Pond and Jonathan as Couch or the company doctor in Q’s novel The Mayor of Troy and the short story ‘The Looe Diehards’ There is no record of a connection between Gilbert and Jonathan Couch, except for a solitary mention in Bertha Couch’s Life(1891), where it is stated that Davies Gilbert, President of the Royal Society, proposed Jonathan as a corresponding member of the Royal Geological Society of Cornwall. It is difficult to believe that Thomas Bond failed to inform Gilbert of the transfer of his lieutenant to London in 1808.

Humphry Davy was not only associated with the Royal Institution but with other elite bodies in London, where the latest ideas and discoveries were discussed, and at which doctors and surgeons were frequently present. Some of these Jonathan would have had direct contact with. Chapters 3 and  of John Davy’s Life relate to the time his brother was at the Royal Institution and name some of his closest associates:

  • Sir Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society, and Count Rumford
  • Mr Davies Gilbert, M.P. for Bodmin, who helped facilitate Humphry’s move from Bristol to London;
  • Doctors Babington, Franke and Baillie, who attended Humphry during an illness in 1807
  • Dr Hyde Wollaston and Dr Thomas Young, secretaries of the Royal Society
  • The Bishop of Durham and Sir Thomas Bernard, fellow Anglicans
  • Mr Children, a chemist
  • Michael Faraday, physicist and chemist, with whom Davy visited the continent
  • Dr Jenner the vaccinator

The autobiography of Benjamin Brodie informs us of a group which met of a Sunday evening in the library of Sir Joseph Banks: Sir William Herschel, Humphry Davy, Dr Thomas Young, Dr Hyde Wollaston, Charles Hatchett, Wilkins the Sanskrit scholar, Marsden, Major Rennell, Henry Cavendish, Everard Home, Barrow, Maskelyne, Blagden, John Abernethy, Carlisle and Brodie. Another group called ‘A Society for the Promotion of Animal Chemistry’, meeting at the homes of Hatchett and Home, consisted of: Humphry Davy, Dr William Babington, William Brande, William Clift, Dr Warren and Brodie.

Information about some of the above can be obtained from the Dictionary of National Biography and other sources.


John Abernethy (1764-1831)

Chapter 7 of Bettany’s Eminent Doctors is headed ‘Sir Astley Cooper and Abernethy: The Knife Verses Regime’. Abernethy was a pupil of John Hunter and surgeon at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital and a Professor at the College of Surgeons.


William Babington (1756-1833) M.D. 

Physician to Guy’s 1795-1811, co-founder of the Hunterian Society and the Geological Society. An old friend of Davy (Davy, 1839, p. 326), with Salmonia being dedicated to him.

Benjamin Guy Babington (1794-1866)

Son of the above, physician and linguist. Assistant to Astley Cooper.


Matthew Baillie (1761-1823) F.R.S.

Physician to St. George’s Hospital.


Sir Joseph Banks (d.1820)

President of the Royal Society prior to Davy.


Sir Charles Bell (1774-1872)

Lecturer at the Great Windmill Street School of Medicine and a Member of the Royal College of Surgeons. An authority on the nervous system (Davy, 1839, p. 389).


William Thomas Brande (1788-1866) F.R.S.

London’s leading chemist who attended Davy’s lectures.


Sir Benjamin Collins Brodie (1783-1862)

Lecturer at the Great Windmill Street School of Medicine and President of the Royal Society (see Bettany, X, ‘Sir Benjamin Brodie and Sir William Lawrence, Two Great Practical Surgeons’).


Sir Anthony Carlisle (1768-1840), F.R.S.

Professor of Anatomy at the Royal Academy, having been a pupil of John Hunter. Also a biologist with an interest in fish.


William Clift

(See above).


Michael Faraday (1791-1867), D.C.L., F.R.S.

From 1812 Davy’s assistant and friend. An experimental scientist highly regarded by Einstein.


Charles Hatchett (1765?-1847), F.R.S.



Sir William Hershel (1738-1822), F.R.S. 

Astronomer and physicist.


Sir Everard Home (1756-1832)

Brother-in-law of John Hunter, a member of the Physical Society and a sergeant-surgeon.


Edward Jenner (1749-1823)

Personal friend of John Hunter, Humphry Davy, Everard Home and Henry Cline. Discoverer of vaccination. The National Vaccine Institution was established in 1808.


Thomas Poole (1765-1837)

Of Nether Stowey. Poole came to know Davy through their friendship with the poet Coleridge and their friendship remained until the end. Davy dedicated The Last Days of the Philosopher to him (Davy, 1839, letter of 1803).


William Hyde Wollaston (1766-1828) M.D., F.R.S.

Physiologist, chemist and physicist. On the death of Blake he stepped aside to facilitate Davy’s election as President of the Royal Society in 1820. In 1809 gave the Croonian lecture on muscles.


Pelham Warren (1776-1835) F.R.S.

Of St. George’s Hospital.


John Collins Warren of Boston, U.S.A.

Studied at the Borough Hospitals in late 1790s.


Dr Thomas Young (1773-1820)

Mathematician, physician, physicist and Egyptologist. An old friend of Davy (Davy, 1839, p. 422).


Having been born in 1778, Humphry Davy lived through the great watershed of early modern European history, the French Revolution, with his life spanning the American War of Independence before it, and the Napoleonic War that came after. He grew up in the ‘Age of Enlightenment’ and died shortly before the Great Reform Bill and the crowning of Queen Victoria. In the introduction to English Society in the Eighteenth Century (1990), Roy Porter defines the ‘Georgian Century’ as secular, materialistic and market driven. The concluding chapter by C.P. Courtney, entitled ‘Edmund Burke and the Enlightenment’, explores the thinking of those who saw the age as enlightened and those who derided it for its ‘atheism and materialism’ (1990, p. 496). When Jonathan Couch arrived at London in 1808, the opposing forces were still locked in combat, with the Borough Hospitals, dominated by Henry Cline and Astley Cooper, as centres of Enlightenment thought. However, there must have been those of a contrary opinion because in 1811 Henry Cline resigned his post and Astley Cooper progressively modified his opinions, particularly in the fields of politics and religion.

Jonathan Couch, even more Humphry Davy, came to London steeped in a culture which, as Q points out in the novel Ia, was ancient when the Romans arrived. According to John Davy, Humphry’s fondness for his grandmother resulted in his ‘poetical mind’ being filled from the ‘rich store of (Penwith’s) traditions and marvels’ (1839, p. 5). His grandmother had been born into Penwith society towards the close of the transfer period from Cornish Celtic to English. Some knowledge of this time has come down to us from William Gwavas of Paul, who died in 1741, and the Keeper of the Ashmolean museum in Oxford, Edward Lhuyd, who made a study of the Cornish tongue in 1700. Interestingly, Sir Jonathan Trelawney, Bishop of Exeter, a forbear of the Rev. Sir Harry Trelawney, provided Lhuyd with three language manuscripts. Davy’s great-grandparents would have been bilingual. His grandmother would not have been without some knowledge of Cornish and with a great deal of knowledge of the old literature in an Anglicanised form. Remnants of this ancient culture appear in the writings of Robert Hunt F.R.S., and Dr Thomas Quiller-Couch, and latterly in the novels and short stories of Q. Humphry Davy’s friend Davies Giddy or Gilbert certainly had a minimal knowledge of Cornish. The English renderings of place names in Thomas Bond’s History of Looe must have come from Gilbert. Humphry Davy’s awareness of this ancient culture provided him with perspective, enabling him to see his own age as but a contemporary period, freeing him from the tyranny of the present moment. The philosophical reflections appearing in his last works, Salmonia and Consolations in Travel, draw from deep roots. The same might be said of Q.

John Davy’s Life gives a precise and dated account of his brother’s mind from his earliest to his last writings. As a teenager in Penzance Humphry was attracted to ‘materialism’ (Davy, 1839, p.15), but in the ‘cold region of materialism…remained a very short time’ (ibid., p. 16), reasoning that ‘chance’ could only have produced a ‘universe of dancing atoms, without regularity’, hence the need of an organising intelligence or ‘Supreme Being’ (ibid., p. 17). Davy saw ‘materialism’ as inevitably leading to ‘Atheism’ (ibid., p. 68) and to the end of his days deplored the ‘irony and scoffs of the gross materialists and atheists’ (ibid., p. 441). Nor did he agree with ‘Deism’, seeing it as the product of ‘Anthropoganism’ (ibid., p. 225).

Where he did agree with the likes of John Hunter, John Thelwall, Henry Cline and the young Astley Cooper was in being ‘free from the undue influence of authority’ (ibid., p. 28), and in entertaining ‘scepticism in regard to theory’ (ibid., p. 69). Davy warned, however, a warning never more necessary than today!, that ‘Experimental science hardly ever affords us more than approximations to truth’ with ‘probabilities…the most we can hope for’ (ibid., p. 70).

Although Davy was a devout Anglican, any notion of the historicity of the creation stories in Genesis appears never to have crossed his mind, any more than it could have done with Hunter, Thelwall, Cline and Cooper. He suggests the world to have been based on the ‘monad’ or ‘atom’, within which lay an organising ‘principle’ implanted by a ‘present Deity’ (ibid., p. 222). From the ‘monad’ the universe evolved, with his lectures on Geology, given in 1806, outlining the various theories as to how the evolution occurred over inordinant time. By 1816 the idea of evolutionary change had attained a clearer form (ibid., p. 228). For instance, he saw ‘the divided tail of the fish (as) linked in a long succession of like objects with biped man’ (ibid., p. 217). The concept of evolution, which underlay his famous lectures at the Royal Institution from 1801 to 1812, appear to have roused no adverse comment, probably because the idea of evolution was common currency. The subtle difference between Davy’s idea of evolution and Darwin’s is that Davy explains while Darwin describes.

In the last years of his life Davy produced two philosophical works, summarising his mature reflections, Salmonia and Consolations in Travel, or Last Days of a Philosopher, the second being the more important. Shortly before his death he wrote to his brother John: ‘I bless God that I have been able to finish all my philosophical labours’ (Davy, 1839, p. 404). His scientific and philosophical labours led him to one conclusion. ‘Our real knowledge is but to be sure that we know nothing’ (ibid., p. 339) except that we must die with ‘confidence in God’ (ibid., p. 340), and in the ‘wisdom and goodness of the Creator’ (ibid., p. 385). A letter to John Davy, dated to February 23, 1829, written in Rome reveal ‘philosophical labours’ to mean ‘Consolations in Travel’ (ibid., p. 404). Shortly afterwards he heard of the death of his close friend Dr Thomas Young (ibid., p. 422), and expired on the following day, May 29, 1829.

Consolations in Travel brings many of his earlier themes to fruition. It goes from the evolution of the planet as evidenced in its ‘geological structures’ to a belief in the unity of ‘faith’ and ‘reason’. It argues for the ‘immortality’ and immateriality’ of the ‘soul’ on the basis that ‘sensibility and intelligence cannot result from any combination of any insensate unintelligent atoms’ (ibid., pp. 426–9). Finally, he claims that only a ‘Divine Eternal Mind’, not ‘chance’ or ‘accident’, can explain the ‘fixed laws’ which ‘produce perpetual life’ (ibid., p. 437). The work appears to have been written in Rome, the ‘Eternal City’, where he hoped to leave his bones (ibid., p. 404), although he actually died in Geneva.

There can be little question of the profound affinity Davy felt with Rome. It is interesting to speculate why this should have been, and what connection the ‘Eternal City’ had with the Atlantic peninsula upon which Penzance stands. Davy even felt the pull of Roman Catholicism (Davy, 1839, p. 426; pp. 430-2), although unlike Sir Harry Trelawney he never converted. This pull never affected Jonathan Couch. One possible reason could have been Davy’s closeness to the Celtic language. The remnants of the tongue he heard from his grandmother was derived from the language heard by the Romans when they invaded Britain and which persisted on the post-Roman kingdom of Dumnonia which consisted of Devon and Cornwall and had its capital in Exeter. There were also the continuing links, going back to the time of the Greeks and Phoenicians, with the Mediterranean.

No one was more aware of this that Q. In Ia, set in western Cornwall, Aunt Alse is rooted in beliefs older than the ‘Caesars’ and the ‘Cassiterides’. The Cassiterides were the tin islands of Herodotus, which Q believed included ‘Ictus’, probably St. Michael’s Mount. In 1900, Q gave a lecture to the Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society called ‘Cornwall and the Romans’ which in 1901 was published. In it he explores the Phoenician, Greek and Roman legacy. In his preface to Cornwall, A Survey of 1930, Q looked back to Cornwall’s pre-Celtic history, identifying the frequency of its Iberian looking inhabitants and Iberian sounding personal names, many of which are included in his stories. D.N.A. testing has confirmed the autochthonous people of Devon and Cornwall as having migrated from north-east Spain, and south-west France at the end of the ice age.

The cultural background is only important, however, to its degree of influence upon Davy’s ideas, and by implication to Jonathan Couch’s. There are five reasons for believing it did have an influence.

Firstly it provided Davy with a yardstick of judgment, enabling him to see received opinion from a more objective viewpoint and to respond to it in an original and innovative way. Davy had the same effect on chemistry and geology as John Hunter had on medicine, overturning shibboleths and replacing theory with experiment. In fact, this is how the tin streaming and hard rock mining industries in Cornwall had developed. They had no models. That Davy made some of closest friend from within the medical profession tells its own story.

Secondly, although Davy was a friend of Romantic poets such as Coleridge, Southey, Wordsworth, possibly Byron, his experiences of Nature and Divinity were quite different. He did not simply feel illuminated and inspired by Nature, but a oneness with Nature and Deity. His poetical vision was intensely theistic. There can be little doubt that Q’s experiences in Bradley Woods and on Lerryn Water, as described in Memories and Opinions (1945), were similar. This fed directly into Davy’s science, inoculating him against Enlightenment rationalism, materialism and atheism.

Thirdly, the antiquity of Cornish culture, as exemplified by the cromlechs and stone-circles of the Penwith Moors, and the drowned forest beyond St. Michael’s Mount, and even the legends such as the lost land of Lyonesse, which was supposed to lie between the Lizard Point and the Scilly Isles, enabled him to envisage the vast expanses of geological and evolutionary time and even infinity itself.

Fourthly, Davy inherited from his apprenticeship to John Bingham Borlase (1753-1813) M.D., of Penzance, a tradition which was Anglican, Whig and experimental. The tradition stemmed from John of Pendeen (1666- 1776), and included his sons, the Rev. Walter Borlase, Ll.D., (1694-1776), Vice-Warden of the Stannaries, and the Rev. William Borlase, Ll.D., F.R.S., (1695-1772), a friend of the Davy family. The tradition included involvement in the fields of geology, minerology and high-pressure steam. By the time Humphry Davy was born, Penwith was experiencing the Industrial Revolution and was making a contribution to it. The tradition of metal working, however, was extremely ancient.

Fifthly, Davy’s interest in dreams, even as ‘forewarning’. According to Bertha Couch’s Life of Jonathan Couch, John and Richard Quiller were drowned aboard the Three Brothers of Polperro in 1804 because they disregarded a dream forewarning disaster (1891, p. 31). Amongst Davy’s essays of 1797-9 was one on ‘Dreaming’ (Davy, 1839, pp. 60–3) and a fictional work called ‘The Dreams of a Solitary’ (ibid., p. 64). John Davy relates one dream or semi-dream in which his brother experienced a oneness with ‘Nature and Deity’ (ibid., pp. 66­7) and on his deathbed a sense of ‘genial illumination’, ‘immortality’ and ‘bliss’ (ibid., p. 67). Jonathan Couch had a vision of his first wife who had died shortly before in childbirth (Couch, 1891, p. 28).

Consolations in Travel recognises the disturbances ‘superstition’ is capable of ‘awakening’, even in a rational mind (Davy, 1838, p. 65). Possibly his most revealing observation comes in the Notes of about 1818, where he says: ‘Man is not intended to pry into futurity; and the occasional miracles and gleams of prophecy seem intended to demonstrate divine interference or power’ (ibid., pp. 226–7). As with Jonathan Couch, Davy refused the notion of the universe as a closed material system, a notion which explains everything and nothing and ends as a tautology. While on his medical rounds Jonathan Couch heard of unusual phenomena, mostly capable of rational explanation, but not always. He set out these phenomena in Truth against all the World. He concluded with an observation reflecting Davy's position ‘I meddle not with it’ (1891, p. 90). In fact, the Quillers were particularly prone to such phenomena. Q includes some of this type of matter in his stories. What Q repeatedly argues against is that reality can be enclosed in a theory, rationalist or any other.

There is a pervasive notion in our society that what we know, or think we know, today supercedes what was thought yesterday. This appears particularly true in science which has formulated for itself a version of the ‘Whig Interpretation of History’. Yet many of the more profound issues appear and reappear century by century. It is clear that the thought of the Davys and the Couches has a singularity explicable only in terms of a Cornish background and which others may find unusual. The danger is in sifting out this material as inconvenient. This is what John Davy refused to do but later biographers did do. The same is true of Q. The present writer believes the temptation should be resisted.

We may never know whether Jonathan Couch attended the lectures of Humphry Davy in the theatre of the Royal Institution at 21 Albemarle Street or met any of the Davys living in London. There are similarities and differences in their thinking. In his introduction to his father’s History of Polperro (1871), Thomas Q. Couch, Q’s father, informs us of Jonathan’s mode of thought. Jonathan deplored ‘loosely observed facts’ and ‘deductions prematurely drawn’, advising scepticism and caution in regard to a ‘definite conclusion’. He spent long hours in the field and welcomed the arrival of rare specimens from local fishermen. Curiously, Jonathan was a Fellow of the Linnean Society and contributed to the Transactions of the Royal Academy of Brussels, but was never elected Fellow of the Royal Society, in spite of Humphry Davy and Davies Gilbert being presidents. Thomas also informs us of an unpublished manuscript, a Treatise on Dreams, a subject of interest he shared with Humphry Davy. Thomas agrees with Davy in seeing the ‘natural philosopher’ as being born thus, and in not being the product of mountains of absorbed facts and intense education.

Bertha Couch’s Life repeats and supplements the above. In the paper ‘Illustration of Instinct’, Jonathan sees man’s desire for ‘immortality’ and his fear of ‘annihilation’ as an extension of a life ‘instinct’. As all ‘instinct’ is related to an ‘object’, so the desire for ‘immortality’ finds its fulfilment in a ‘faith in God’ (1891, pp. 132–6). This finds parallels in the thinking of Davy.

Where Humphry Davy and Jonathan Couch also agree is in having a sceptical attitude to political, scientific and religious authority, in regarding theory as strictly provisional and in possessing a theistic, as against a materialistic and atheistic, interpretation of the universe. Both viewed the soul as the animating factor in human nature, whose presence or absence determines whether the material body is living or a corpse (as with John Hunter in his dispute with John Thelwall). Finally they rejected the notion of a universe as the product of chance, randomness and conflict. Interestingly, where the above impinged on Q he took the same positions.

This does not imply any direct connection between Humphry Davy and Jonathan Couch, as both could have come to the same conclusions independently and probably did. They came from a similar cultural background and confronted a similar range of intellectual ideas. They differed in having absorbed or otherwise the philosophical and theological influences of John Wesley and Methodists such as Dr Adam Clarke. They also differed artistically, with Davy tending to poetry and Couch to painting, a trait which came to fruition in Thomas Quiller-Couch, a Fellow of the Society of Artists. Finally Davy was a chemist with medical friends, while Couch was a doctor with scientific interests. The common influence was that of the Scottish Enlightenment, particularly David Hume, with before him the Englishman John Locke.

Medical Science and Philosophy

It is impossible to study developments in medical science either side of 1800, as absorbed by Jonathan Couch and the students of the united medical school of Guy’s and St. Thomas’, and the developments in chemistry and geology driven by Humphry Davy and others at the Royal Institution, without grasping the foundational importance of philosophy, particularly the writings of John Locke, David Hume and the exponents of the Scottish Enlightenment. Between the ages of 18 and 20 Humphry Davy read through the writings of ‘Locke, Hartley, Bishop Berkeley, Hume, Helvetius, Condorcet, Reid’ along with ‘Kant and the Transcendentalists’ (Davy, 1839, p. 28). He had a very different attitude from many scientists today who dismiss philosophy as irrelevant.

Scientists of the period based their work on clear principles. First, a sceptical attitude to tradition, received opinion and theory; with a covert understanding, based on Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature (Book i, Parts iii, vi & xii) of 1739-40, of the inadequacy of Induction or Inductive Inference in the construction of scientific theory – a theory cannot be the product of any number of individual observations as a general statement cannot be the product of any number of singular statements. Secondly, an emphasis on observation, experiment and reason. Thirdly, an acknowledgement of the limits of human understanding and the impossibility of certainty.

While there appears to have been general agreement on principles, there was disagreement elsewhere. Some, like John Thelwall, wanted to establish science on materialistic and atheistic lines. Some, like John Hunter, favoured Deism. Davy and others, including young Jonathan Couch, tended to theism. John Hunter died in 1793, Henry Cline in 1827, Astley Cooper in 1841, Edward Jenner in 1823, John Thelwall in 1834 and Humphry Davy in 1829. Some, like Michael Faraday, a devout member of the Bible fundamentalist Sandemanian sect, endeavoured to continue the tradition. However, at the commencement of the Victorian period there arose a generation who knew their Hume selectively, if they knew it at all, and reinstated the primacy of theory and authority, with Charles Darwin as their prophet.

In a letter to Henry Fawcett, written in 1861, which appears in Dinosaur in a Haystack by the leading American evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould, Darwin says: ‘About thirty years ago there was much talk that geologists ought only to observe and not to theorise’ (1996, p. 148). Gould claims Darwin to have written to Fawcett so as to counteract the tendency in contemporary scientists of emphasising ‘fact over theory’, with the aim of establishing the ‘necessary interaction between theory and observation’ (ibid., p. 149) – theory to Darwin meant inductive inference. He was attacking the methods of Davy and Hunter, who believed science to be based on observation, fact and experiment, with a conclusion, Davy’s safety-lamp, for instance, leading to practical application. In Faraday, the Life, James Hamilton states that Davy was the ‘key to industrial and economic progress’, with his and Faraday’s work leading to developments in manufacturing, medicine and agriculture (2002, p. 48). This was the methodology Jonathan Couch absorbed at medical school and employed in medical practice. But it was decreasingly the methodology of the scientific establishment in the latter part of his life. Yet it was the methodology Jonathan imparted to his sons and which came down to Q.

While being an evolutionist of international distinction, Gould is not a slavish Darwinian. In Part 3, Section 9 of Dinosaur in a Haystack, Gould criticises Darwin’s belief in adaption through natural selection over millions of years, the ‘gradualist approach’, for which there is little evidence. When palaeontologists pointed out the lack of evidence in geological strata to Darwin, he countered by claiming that time would solve the problem. It has not. According to Gould, recent (1994) ‘rigorously determined radiometric age dates’ reveal the major evolutionary developments to have occurred in just ‘5 million years, from about 535 to 530 million years ago’ (ibid., p. 109). This event Gould terms the ‘Cambrian explosion’. Since then, ‘most fossil species’ have remained in ‘stasis’ (ibid., p. 127). However, because of Darwin’s authority, this ‘stasis’ has not been researched (ibid., p. 128). One wonders what John Hunter and Humphry Davy would have said about this!

Darwin’s dogmatic beliefs in ‘gradualistic evolution’ and his authority in the scientific establishment also, according to Gould, held back observations of what appear in geological strata to have been ‘mass extinctions’, the most dramatic of which occurred in the late Permian times, about ‘225 million years ago’, when ‘up to 96 per cent of maxine invertebrate species became extinct’ (3, 12, 149-50). It was Darwin’s view in Origin of the Species of 1859 which prevailed over the facts. All this led Gould and his associates to develop a theory called ‘punctuated equilibrium’ (1996, pp. 3, 12, 150-3).

Q had considerable respect for Darwin’s powers of observation, but for one standing in a tradition going back through Jonathan Couch to John Hunter and David Hume, he was always careful to call Darwinism the ‘Darwinian hypothesis’. Significantly, there is no index reference in Darwin by A. Desmond and J. Moore to David Hume. Sir Karl Popper, another familiar with the writings of Hume, calls evolution ‘metaphysics’. What Q objected to was not evolution but the post-Darwinian emphasis on survival of the fittest and existence dominated by competition and conflict. This is set out in Q’s novel Shining Ferry.

The story is set against the background of the Forster Education Act of 1870, with the provision it made for locally controlled Board Schools. Following the Balfour Education Act of 1903, and the establishment of the Cornwall Education Authority, Q became an inspector of schools, as is one of the characters in the novel. Both acts came in response to the industrial and economic rise of a united Germany. Ernst Haeckel, the German Darwin, made the following observations after reading Origin of Species: Following the battle of Jena ‘a higher group whose racial integrity was explained by evolution, had developed through the same struggle and selection as the new Prussian state’ (Darwin, 1859, p. 521). Gould observes: ‘Claptrap Darwinism has served as an official rationale for German military conquest in World War I’ (Gould, 1996, p. 316).

Gould goes on to observe that although ‘struggle for existence’ is ‘metaphorical’ ‘most nineteenth-century versions (including Darwin’s own illustrations, most of the time) stressed overt competition and victory by death -’ (ibid., p. 316). Shining Ferry is historically accurate. Q was born into a scientifically informed family four years after the publication of Origin of Species and eight years before The Descent of Man. Darwin died in 1882, the year that Q entered Oxford, with his mantle falling on Thomas Huxley, who died in 1895, shortly after giving one of his last lectures at the university. Jonathan Couch’s friend and correspondent Richard Owen, a one-time assistant to William Clift at the Hunterian, and an opponent of natural selection as a sufficient explanation of evolution, died in 1892. No one was better placed than Q to observe the progress of Darwinism as it historically happened.

In Chapter I of Shining Ferry, the reader is introduced to merchant and landowner John Rosewarne, who between the Forster Education Act of 1871 and his death in late 1872, has a board school built locally. Rosewarne is a disciple of the writings of Charles Darwin, which he believes have replaced the writings of scripture. The ethic of ‘love thy neighbour’ has been replaced in his view, by ‘struggle for life’, competition, conflict and militaristic nationalism. In Chapter XII the school is opened, following which Sir George Dinham and a school inspector (which Q was at the time) converse on the subject of Darwinism. The inspector sees popular Darwinism as releasing the worst aspects of human nature, with an age of barbarism likely in a generation, and fifty years of liberal reforms destroyed. The novel proved remarkably prophetic, with the First World War breaking out in 1914.

Q returned to Darwinism in his first lecture on Shelley, printed in Studies in Literature of 1922, four years after the ending of the war. In it he claimed that the early Victorian age had rejected the vision of freedom and harmony propounded by Shelley, replacing it with political repression, and subsequently the ‘Darwinian hypothesis’ presented as ‘struggle-for-life competition’, the first law of Nature. Inevitably, this led to war. When Shining Ferry was republished in the Duchy Edition of 1928, Q endorsed its contents in a new preface.

Although Jonathan Couch had a body of learning behind him, including a knowledge of Latin and Greek, and had been disciplined in medical practice through apprenticeships to Rice and Lawrence, the two terms he spent at the united medical school of Guy’s and St. Thomas’ proved the most intellectually important period of his life. From Cline, Cooper and Knighton he learned a methodology of observation, experimentation and application whose purpose was to expand the parameters of scientific knowledge and medical practice. It is difficult to know what acquaintances he formed outside of his profession, but it is difficult to believe that he was uninfluenced by the intense intellectual life of the capital. Later he corresponded with a number of leading scientific figures and was elected a Fellow of the Linnean Society. He lived long enough to witness the Victorian age, with a recrudescence of the theoretical approach which spawned Darwinism, Marxism and Freudianism.

When Q arrived to take up his duties as King Edward VII Professor of English Literature at Cambridge in 1912, 42 years after the death of his grandfather, the theoretical approach had infiltrated many departments of the university. Q’s later biographer, Dr A.L. Rowse, who arrived at Oxford in 1921, was profoundly influenced by Marx, Engels and Darwin, as On History of 1927 and The Use of History of 1946 reveals. Q’s Cambridge lectures give theoretical systems and received opinions short shrift. As with the lectures of John Hunter and Humphry Davy, he wished to shock away the props so as to force his audience to confront reality unconditioned, and to think for themselves.

The Freudian novel, the Marxist text, and the struggle-for-existence drama were not for him, nor the music of random notes or the picture of chance daubs. His rational consciousness was the product and the observer of a rational universe, the creation of a rational divinity; as it was with Jonathan Couch and Humphry Davy. Q drew the same enthusiastic crowds at Cambridge as had Davy at the Royal Institution. Some of Q’s lectures now appear dated because issues have moved on, particularly political ones, but where he is working at the eternal verities of our existence datedness can never be a problem.


Bibliography: Jonathan Cooch


Hamilton, J.

John Wesley.

Outler, A. (Ed.)
John Wesley.
Oxford University Press.

Walton's Lives.

Walton, I.
Walton's Lives. The Life of John Donne.