Saturday 21 March 2015

"A clever but very eccentric person..."; Joseph Constantine Carpue (1764 - 1846), St Nicholas Churchyard, Chiswick

Carpue's family tomb in the churchyard at Chiswick

Saturday 2 October 1841 was a fine autumn day for an excursion to the coast. The 77 year old anatomist and surgeon Joseph Carpue escorted his four daughters from his house in Fitzroy Square to Victoria Station and put them in a first class coach on the Brighton train. As irrepressibly curious as ever and “anxious to see the structure of the Brighton line” (which had only been open for 11 days) from the best vantage point possible Carpue sat in an open carriage accompanied by two of his servants  Henry Palmer, aged twenty-three, a footman, and Jane Watson, also twenty-three, a housemaid.  The journey was without incident until the train arrived at Horley where an additional engine was attached to provide additional power to haul the carriages up the steep incline of the South Downs to the Balcombe Tunnel.  Once through the tunnel, as the train moved downhill towards Haywards Heath, it began to build up excessive speed and one of the two engines derailed taking with it the open carriages immediately behind, throwing Carpue and his servants onto the tracks. At the inquest James Jackson, the driver of the derailed locomotive, described the immediate aftermath of the accident, how he had stumbled around in the wreckage of the train amongst the dead and injured “I got between the carriages, when I discovered the deceased young woman lying across the rails…. she was also quite dead, one of the wheels having passed over her stomach, nearly cutting her in half. One of the guards threw his great coat over her….. Palmer was also lying on the line quite dead, his head being fractured in a shocking manner.”  William Elliot, surgeon and keeper of the Cowper House Lunatic Asylum at Brompton, was also present in the open carriage. In his evidence to the inquest he enlarged on the shocking manner of Henry Palmer’s death; “The first object that met his eye was the body of a servant in livery, and a little further on was his head completely severed, though the passing of one the wheels over the neck it was cut in half, and the brains scattered about in all directions. Near this was a female completely cut in half, the wheels of the engine having passed over her.”
Carpue by Charles Turner, mezzotint, published 1822

When Carpue recovered consciousness he immediately began calling for his family; “Are my daughters killed? Will any one inquire what has become of the Miss Carpues?” Badly injured as he was he got to his feet and began looking for them. He saw a dead body covered with his own cloak – unknown to him it must have been the body of Henry Palmer – and the corpse of a female who he assumed to be his own maidservant. To his joy he found his daughters still sitting in the first class carriage completely uninjured. The surgeon was eventually persuaded to lie down on a makeshift stretcher constructed out of a board and was carried to another carriage and taken to Brighton where he was met by his wife and taken to a friend’s house. According to a letter later written to one of the London papers Carpue credited his recovery to “my old friend Mr. Attree [who] immediately attended, and did not leave till he had applied, I believe, 100 leeches; and I beg to state, that to that gentleman's Judgment, attention, and unremitting kindness I owe my life.” Although he lived for another 5 years by all accounts Carpue never fully recovered from the shock of the accident. He took the railway company to court and “after a tedious process at law he obtained a verdict for damages in the sum of £250, most of which had already been spent in costs.”

Carpue was born in Brook Green, Hammersmith in 1764, to a family of Spanish catholic descent. He was educated at the Jesuit College in Douai and travelled extensively around France on foot before and during the Revolution. He saw Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette at the dinner table with Philip Egalité, Duke of Orleans, waiting on them and later in Paris listened to the speeches of Danton, Marat and Robespierre. His wanderlust continued all through his life and he later traveled, again on foot, through Wales, the Scottish Highlands, Holland, Italy, Germany and the Tyrol. He had trouble settling himself to a career; he had attended Douai with the intention of becoming a priest but abandoned the idea in favour of becoming a bookseller like his uncle. He then toyed with a career on the stage (his admiration for Shakespeare was so great that in later life he proposed erecting a colossal statue to the bard at the mouth of the Thames) but finally alighted on medicine. He studied at St Georges and become an accomplished anatomist and experimental surgeon. In 1801 he anatomised James Legg the executed Chelsea Pensioner for the benefit of three Royal Academicians who wanted to study the effects of crucifixion on the human body. In 1803 he was one of the fascinated audience of surgeons present when Giovanni Aldini used galvanic batteries to attempt the reanimation of another executed criminal, George Foster. Shortly afterwards he purchased his own electrical machine which he kept in his dining room to experiment on various fragments of human and animal corpses and he wrote a book on the subject “An Introduction to Electricity and Galvanism, with Cases showing their Effects in the Cure of Disease.” He also wrote books on human muscles, removing gall stones and a pioneering work on plastic surgery.

The 'Italian' method
Carpue published this “Account of Two Successful Operations for Restoring a Lost Nose,” in December 1815. The book surveys the history of early rhinoplasty, particularly the celebrated ‘Italian method’ which attached skin from the arm to the nose. The drawback of the Italian method was that severe cold weather often caused the transplanted nose to die and drop off. Carpue studied cases when noses which had been accidentally cut off were successfully sewn back into place and then adapted a technique used for centuries in India of rebuilding the nose using a flap of skin from the forehead which he had read about in an issue of the Gentleman’s Magazine. Carpue experimented with the technique firstly on a man who had lost his nose either through contracting syphilis or from the excessive administration of mercury to cure it. His second case was of an officer who had lost the end of his nose to a sabre at the Battle of Albeura in 1810. Both Carpue and his two patients were pleased with the result of the trailblazing operation though doubtless neither nose job would pass muster today.

J.F. South, twice President of the London College of Surgeons described Carpue as “a clever but very eccentric person. . . . a very good anatomist, who had but few pupils, and carried on his teaching by the very unusual method of catechism—for instance, he described a bone, and then made each pupil severally describe it after him, he correcting the errors whilst the catechisation proceeded. . . . I remember him a tall, ungainly, good-tempered, grey-haired man, in an unfitted black dress, and his neck swathed in an enormous white kerchief, very nearly approximating to a jack-towel.”  
Bust of Carpue by William Behnes - the inscription on the base is a stanza from
Thomas Hood's "Mary's Ghost; A Pathetic ballad" which  mentions the anatomist