The Origins of Stress / End of Year Recommendations
We explore the origins of the concept of stress through a stranger-than-fiction tale of a graverobbing anatomist who stole a giant, and I humbly offer my recommendations as we approach the end of 2022
The holidays are a joyous time for many of us, but they also often produce stress. Today’s newsletter has two parts. In the first, I trace the historical origins of the concept of stress through the unusual story of a corpse snatching doctor who founded modern anatomy. In the second, I give you my end-of-year recommendations, not necessarily only of things produced in 2022, but of things that I enjoyed this year, in the hopes that some of you may enjoy them too.
The Giant Stealer and the Origins of Stress
Stress is a concept we constantly use in everyday conversation. But the term—and the concept—weren’t always part of our lives. They had to be discovered. And a man who helped discover them, by accident, was a larger-than-life eccentric that, as we shall see, was a controversial, highly strung genius who was willing to cross ethical lines to transform science, and to radically change our understanding of the human body, forever.
In the summer of 1783, a giant died in London. Not a metaphorical giant of literature or science, but an actual giant—a man who was eight feet tall named Charles Byrne. Afflicted by a disease that made him grow and grow, Byrne made a living by showing off his towering body to Georgian Britain. Most people paid to see an unusual curiosity. But one man, a Scottish surgeon named John Hunter, wanted to pay for something more: Byrne’s lifeless body.
Unorthodox in many ways, Hunter had become a world-leading expert on human anatomy. He honed his expertise with a unique method: dissecting thousands of fresh corpses. Hunter had an can-do attitude, which was alarming given his professional interests. When there wasn’t a sufficient supply from the hospitals, he robbed graves, bringing the bodies to his house on London’s Leicester Square (on the site of the modern-day Moon Under Water pub—I’ve had a few pints a few meters from where Hunter used to dissect the stolen bodies).
Hunter was an irritable, eccentric workaholic, starting his research at dawn and often persisting into the small hours of the following morning. He sought status. He wanted to not only establish himself as a pre-eminent figure in medical science, but also hope to solidify his social rank above his brother, whom he viewed as a professional rival. To one up his sibling, Hunter sought to revolutionize science forever.
Some of Hunter’s research was doomed by its obvious lunacy, such as when he tried to invent a pathway to human immortality by freezing a series of ears from various animals. (It’s a little unclear what his theory was for how ears could lead to immortality, but needless to say, it didn’t work). Despite such oddities, Hunter experimented, and dramatically improved our early understanding of organ transplants, teeth, how to treat gunshot wounds, child development, and venereal diseases. If you know anyone who became pregnant using artificial insemination, they have John Hunter to thank. He completed the first such successful attempt using a syringe, in 1790.
But to gain such groundbreaking insights, Hunter wasn’t just interested in any old bodies. Instead, he lived to research the extremes on the spectrum of human biological variation. The weirder, the better. The giant who had been walking around London, getting paid to show his body off, was therefore irresistible to Hunter. Charles Byrne’s gargantuan corpse would’ve been the feather in Hunter’s bloody cap. While Byrne was still alive, Hunter made it known that he’d very much like to carve up his body with his scalpel (once Byrne was done using his body, of course).
Byrne, understandably a bit disconcerted by a man diligently trying to pre-book his cadaver, made secret special arrangements to avoid going under Hunter’s knife. Upon his death, Byrne was to be whisked in a coffin to the English coastal town of Margate, where he’d be loaded onto a ship and buried at sea. His body would be lost to science, but it would remain his own to do with what he pleased in death, as it was in life.
Hunter, however, couldn’t be bothered with ethics. When Byrne died, aged twenty-two, Hunter paid the substantial sum of £500 to bribe those tasked with transporting the coffin. Swapping out Byrne’s body for some heavy stones of the same weight, there was quite a shock when the casket was opened and the rocks were discovered. The giant had gone missing.
Upon returning to his home lab, Hunter “defleshed” and boiled the corpse, leaving just the skeleton. A few years later, after Byrne had been largely forgotten, Hunter revealed that he had the bones in his possession. To this day, they’re on display at the Hunterian Museum in London, illuminated in an oversized glass case, directly below a bust of the man who stole his body.
(There is an ongoing debate as to whether Byrne’s remains should be properly buried at sea, according to his wishes. For what it’s worth, the Hunterian museum is one of the weirdest museums in the world, as it’s full of Hunter’s dissection collection of human remains).
Here’s where stress enters the picture.
Hunter’s machinations took a toll on him over the years. Though he had an estate to retreat to just outside of London where he could relax—complete with zebras, water buffalo, hyenas, jackals, a lion, dingoes, and two leopards—Hunter was addicted to his work. He also developed a reputation for a red-hot temper. Over time, his associates began to notice that his fiery anger seemed to be having an impact on his health. In 1785, a fellow physician wrote of him: “he can scarcely go up stairs so much is he affected with dyspnoea on the least motion.”
In the end, though, it wasn’t a stairway that did him in. It was an insufferable staff meeting. (Who can’t relate to that)?
On October 16, 1793, Hunter attended a board meeting at St. George’s Hospital in London. Contemporary accounts of the meeting detail a series of heated exchanges, with Hunter losing his temper. Unable to control the “tumult of his passion,” Hunter stumbled out of the meeting and, “with a deep groan, he fell lifeless into the arms” of a colleague.
Surrounded by medical researchers, Hunter’s demise presented them with a fresh hypothesis. Had he worked and shouted himself to death by pursuing status? Had the mental afflictions of what we now know as stress acted like a physical poison that ended his life?
Hunter’s death offered a turning point. Everyone knew that Hunter was prone to outbursts, and that his mental volatility appeared to be linked to a visible heart condition, in which he routinely was unable to perform his duties after his trademark exclamations of fury. That made him into a living test case for their curiosity. As Professor Fay Bound Alberti of the University of York explains:
The anatomist’s ill-health turned him into a case study, as Hunter’s acquaintances, friends and colleagues monitored his condition with interest.
When Hunter died, the tables were turned. The man who stole corpses and dissected them was, himself, subject to an autopsy that sought physical markers of what we now call stress. Professor Bound Alberti again explains:
The tracks of disease processes were physically sketched on Hunter’s innards and the comparison of autopsy findings helped to create and formalise new categories of disease concepts.
Interestingly, the link between emotions and physical harm had long been supposed, but it was pseudoscience. For example, medieval scientists sometimes suggested that fear caused infection from Bubonic Plague, that during outbreaks of the Black Death, only those who feared the plague were susceptible to it.
But with Hunter, this notion of emotions affecting the body seemed like more than pseudoscience; it seemed like medical fact.
When we speak now of stressors, we sometimes say that a person is “highly strung.” This also comes from Hunter’s era, as Bound Alberti points out:
[Highly strung referred to] the fibres of the nerves being strained between the body and the mind as though the human frame was a finely tuned musical instrument. This was a commonplace trope in discussions of temperament and sensibility from the eighteenth century.
This case is particularly interesting, however, because Hunter is considered the father of modern anatomy, a man with disturbing methods, who nonetheless produced revolutionary new evidence about how our bodies work, and how our bodies are affected by our mental states. The graverobbing father of modern anatomy became a pivotal test case as we sought to understand how stress can take a toll on our bodies, causing us to, sometimes, collapse and die.
So, when you’re feeling stressed this holiday season, consider the strange tale partly linked to the medical origins of that concept, and also consider that it could be worse: you could be stuck in an insufferable staff meeting, or you could have a crazed anatomist plotting to steal your cadaver. If neither of those are problems you currently face, and you’re just coping with a crazy uncle, consider yourself luckier than John Hunter and Charles Byrne.
Brian’s End of Year Recommendations
I’ve decided to share my favorite films, TV shows, books, podcasts, and musicians that I’ve enjoyed this year, with you fine people. Rather than limiting myself to that which was created in 2022, I’m going by the far more subjective metric: what I enjoyed in 2022. Some of these I’ve returned to after a few years, re-discovering them. Others, I came across for the first time. I hope that some of you find some of the joy that I did in these suggestions.
I don’t want to be too bold, but this may be the best documentary I’ve seen in the last five years. I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but the film starts with a simple premise: the director is keen to enter the world of doping, to see if he can push himself to the echelon of professional cyclists. In doing so, he gets in touch with the leading expert on how to dope without getting caught, which brings him into contact with a world of intrigue, spies, and cover-ups. In the process, you get a chilling glimpse of how power operates in Putin’s Russia, which is a timely window into the Kremlin, incredibly relevant in light of the war in Ukraine.
This is a Thai film, a thriller directed by Nattawut Poonpiriya. It’s a unique film, because it makes taking an exam into a nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat cinematic event. The premise is simple: a student facing lots of pressure to over-achieve from family devises an international exam cheating caper, but it’s executed extremely well, and is one that isn’t as well known internationally as it should be. It came out in 2017, but if you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to The Garden of Forking Paths to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.