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Swan, Joseph (DNB00)


SWAN, JOSEPH (1791–1874), anatomist, baptised on 30 Sept. 1791, was son of Henry Swan, a surgeon to the Lincoln County Hospital, and a general practitioner in that city, where his ancestors had carried on their profession for more than a century. Joseph, after serving an apprenticeship to his father, was sent in 1810 to the united hospitals of Guy and St. Thomas in the Borough, where he became a pupil of Henry Cline the younger [q. v.], and gained the warm friendship of his master and of [Sir] Astley Cooper. He was admitted a member of the College of Surgeons on 1 Oct. 1813, and then he went abroad for a short time, after which he settled at Lincoln, and was elected surgeon to the Lincoln County Hospital on 8 Jan. 1814. He won the Jacksonian prize at the College of Surgeons in 1817 for his essay ‘On Deafness and Diseases and Injuries of the Organ of Hearing.’ In 1819 he won the prize a second time with a dissertation ‘On the Treatment of Morbid Local Affections of Nerves.’ He was awarded in 1822 the first college triennial prize for ‘A Minute Dissection of the Nerves of the Medulla Spinalis from their Origin to their Terminations and to their Conjunctions with the Cerebral and Visceral Nerves, authenticated by Preparations of the Dissected Parts;’ and the triennial prize was again given to him in 1825 for ‘A Minute Dissection of the Cerebral Nerves from their Origin to their Termination, and to their Conjunction with the Nerves of the Medulla Spinalis and Viscera.’ Swan's success is the more remarkable when it is borne in mind that the triennial prize has been awarded only seven times since its foundation in 1822. The college had so high an opinion of his merits that he was voted its honorary gold medal in 1825.

In order to meet the difficulty of obtaining subjects for dissection at Lincoln, Sir Astley Cooper sent Swan every Christmas a large hamper labelled ‘glass, with care,’ containing a well-selected human subject. The example set by Sir Astley is said to have been followed by Abernethy, and Swan was thus enabled to proceed uninterruptedly with his work.

Swan resigned his office of surgeon to the Lincoln County Hospital on 26 Feb. 1827, moved to London, and took a house at 6 Tavistock Square, where he converted the billiard-room into a dissecting-room. Here he continued his labours at leisure till the end of his life, never attaining any practice as a surgeon, but doing much for the science of anatomy.

He was elected a life member of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1831, and in 1843 he was nominated a fellow of the college. He resigned his office of member of the council after a severe attack of illness in 1869, and died unmarried at Filey on 4 Oct. 1874. He is buried in Filey churchyard.

Swan was a born anatomist, practical rather than theoretical, and with a native genius for dissection. Of retiring and modest disposition, he remained personally almost unknown; and the value of his work is only now beginning to be appreciated.

Swan's chief work was ‘A Demonstration of the Nerves of the Human Body’ (in twenty-five plates, with explanations, imperial folio, London, 1830; republished, 1865; translated into French, 1838). It is a clear exposition of the course and distribution of the cerebral, spinal, and sympathetic nerves of the human body. The plates are admirably drawn by E. West, and engraved by the Stewarts. The original copperplates and engravings on steel are now in the possession of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, to whom they were presented in 1895 by Mrs. Machin of Gateford Hill, Worksop, widow of the nephew and residuary legatee of Joseph Swan. A cheaper edition of this work was published in 1834, with plates engraved by Finden. It was translated into French, Paris, 4to, 1838.

His other works are: 1. ‘An Account of a New Method of making Dried Anatomical Preparations,’ London (n. d.), 8vo; 2nd edit. 1820; 3rd edit. 1833. 2. ‘A Dissertation on the Treatment of Morbid Local Affections of the Nerves’ (Jacksonian prize essay for 1819), London, 1820, 8vo; translated into German, Leipzig, 1824, 8vo. 3. ‘Observations on some points relating to the Anatomy, Physiology, and Pathology of the Nervous System,’ London, 1822, 8vo. The two latter were apparently reissued as ‘A Treatise on Diseases and Injuries of the Nerves’ (a new edition), London, 1834, 8vo. 4. ‘An Enquiry into the Action of Mercury on the Living Body,’ London, 1822, 8vo; 3rd edit. 1847. 5. ‘An Essay on Tetanus,’ London, 1825, 8vo. 6. ‘An Essay on the Connection between … the Heart … and … the Nervous System … particularly its Influence … on Respiration,’ London, 1828, 8vo; reprinted 1829. 7. ‘Illustrations of the Comparative Anatomy of the Nervous System,’ London, 1835, 4to, plates. 8. ‘The Principal Offices of the Brain and other Centres,’ London, 1844, 8vo. 9. ‘The Physiology of the Nerves of the Uterus and its Appendages,’ London, 1846, 8vo. 10. ‘The Nature and Faculties of the Sympathetic Nerve,’ London, 1847, 8vo. 11. ‘Plates of the Brain in Explanation of its Physical Faculties,’ &c., London, 1853, 4to. 12. ‘The Brain in its Relation to Mind,’ London, 1854, 8vo. 13. ‘On the Origin of the Visual Powers of the Optic Nerve,’ London, 1856, 4to. 14. ‘Papers on the Brain,’ London, 1862, 8vo. 15. ‘Delineation of the Brain in relation to Voluntary Motion,’ London, 1864, 4to.

[Obituary notices in the Medical Times and Gazette, 1874, ii. 460, and the Lancet, 1874, ii. 538; additional information kindly given by Dr. Mansel Sympson, surgeon to the Lincoln County Hospital, by Mr. W. B. Danby, secretary of the Lincoln County Hospital, and by Mr. A. Vessey Machin.]

D’A. P.