What to do with a dead elephant?

Dundee is currently known as a place of scientific research and discovery, but here’s one Dundee scientist you might not have heard of. Dr Patrick Blair was a Scottish surgeon and botanist, he was born in Dundee in 1680 and practised as a doctor here. And, in 1706 he was the first person to dissect and fully describe the anatomy of an elephant.

Just outside Dundee on the road from Broughty Ferry on 26th April 1706, Florentina, a female Indian elephant which was being exhibited around the north of Scotland, fell over and drowned in a ditch. It was going to be expensive and difficult for the keepers to dispose of the dead animal and so handed the corpse over to the Provost. The local Dr Blair jumped at the opportunity to be the first to dissect and describe the large animal, and the provost was quite frankly glad to be rid of the problem of what to do with a dead elephant!

Dr Blair gathered the help of local butchers, and one particular assistant was Gilbert Orum, harassed debtor, under-employed tradesman, neglected husband and harassed father. But he was also a skilled copper engraver, and he both assisted with the messier parts of the dissection and made engravings of the internal organs and skeleton of the elephant.

 

The locals were determined to take trophies from the elephant or large chunks of meat and an armed guard had to be used to keep the masses away while Dr Blair and his assistants worked on through the night by gaslight. The once majestic beast was measured, dissected and reported on. Blair taking many notes and measurements with Orum making detailed engravings. When they were finished, Blair had the information needed to write an expansive and detailed review of the anatomy of an elephant.

The bones were recovered and the skeleton assembled and mounted as the centre-piece for a new ‘Hall of Rarities’ in Dundee, and the skin was stuffed. Blair was meticulous and wrote up his findings in a paper under the title of Osteographia Elephantina, to the Royal Society of London, published in 1713.

His assistant Orum, seeing an opportunity to further capitalise on this sensational story, also published an account of the dissection. In it, far from being inspired by this historic task, Orum is more concerned with keeping clear of his creditors, or if he can’t avoid them, repaying his debts with anything other than what he lacks the most: ready cash. He uses some of the unusual parts from the dissected elephant as a form of currency in his attempts to pay off the butcher, baker, the chandler, and the blacksmith.

Orum also writes about his family life. His wife is sickly and suffers from extreme nervousness, as do all his children. He is relentlessly pursued by a no-longer younger woman, who waits only for his wife’s death to capture the widower for herself. He also needs to be swift to avoid the baker’s wife, a large lady who is keen to convert his debt into certain ‘services’, and he feels obliged to look out for his older brother and his chaotic family of ten.

Orum details some of the less serious aspects of the dissection, including Dr Blair’s cook being outraged by the storage of parts of dead elephant in her kitchen. Dr Blair retorts: “Never mind, Miss Goag! Just think that your splendid kitchen has this evening played a part in the History of Philosophical experiment!”. Miss Gloag expressed her ardent desire that “Philosophical experiment would rot slowly from its ***** upwards, die painfully and be ******* by Satan forever”.

 

And what became of Dr Blair? While he was appointed a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1712 and received a lot of fame for his elephant dissection works as well as his great work in botany, it was his political beliefs that landed him in trouble.

At the time of the dissection, the Act of the Union was being born. An anti-unionist, Blair compared his own dissections to those of the Commissioners “cutting and butchering the Body Politick of Scotland. Blair’s family were also Jacobites, so it was no surprise when he joined Lord Nairn’s Battalion as a surgeon during the 1715 Jacobite Rebellion. He was captured and taken to Newgate Prison in London, where he was sentenced to death. Lobbying amongst friends and other influential scientists saw a reprieve come at the final moment, past the midnight of his pre-execution night and he was pardoned.

Returning home things were more difficult for his practice in the time of the Union. He carried on with his scientific studies and practising medicine, moving to London, then Boston in Lancashire, where he died in 1728.

Full pdf of the dissection available here – http://rstl.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/27/325-336/53.full.pdf+html

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