Tell us about Dr. Thomas Silkstone, your protagonist.
Thomas Silkstone is a Philadelphian in his twenties, who comes to London to study anatomy in 1774, just before the outbreak of the Revolutionary War. He is the voice of enlightened reason in a world in turmoil. Young, good-looking and with a razor-sharp mind, he’s neither superstitious, nor overtly religious and he prides himself on behaving logically. That’s why, when he meets the first love of his life, Lady Lydia Farrell, he is thrown off balance for a while, experiencing emotions like love and jealousy which have been alien to him until now.
He’s also a polymath, a bit of a rarity in these days of specialisms. He’s an anatomist, a surgeon, a physician and a scientist, challenging old ideas and embracing new discoveries and techniques. But above all, he’s a philosopher at the dawn of a new age. As an American in England, he is treated as an outsider, and this enables him to see events and people with a cool and reasoned detachment, although he is deeply compassionate at heart and his main aim is to alleviate his patients’ suffering.
Can you tell us a bit about the real-life anatomist upon whom Silkstone is based?
Before the Revolution, there were several young men who came from New England to study anatomy in England and in Scotland. Some of them returned to found great medical schools, like John Morgan, founder of the first medical school in Colonial America , or Philip Syng Physick, the so-called ‘father of American surgery.’ Thomas Silkstone is perhaps most like William Shippen Jr, who came from a wealthy Philadelphian family. He was rather a ladies’ man and was considered extremely good-looking and very accomplished. He loved dancing and the theatre and cut a dashing figure on the London social scene. He was befriended by Benjamin Franklin who presented him at court while he was in London. When he returned to America, Shippen helped Morgan launch the country’s first private anatomical school and the first private maternity hospital. During the Revolution he served as Director-General of Military Hospitals.
Benjamin Franklin’s home in London was also home to a young anatomist. Is that right?
Yes. Franklin only rented the rooms in his London home and his landlady’s daughter was married to an anatomists called William Hewson who dissected many human specimens in the basement. (When the house was being restored, builders found the remains of ten human bodies.) While there is no documentary evidence that Hewson and Franklin ever worked together, I’m sure the two men would have taken a keen interest in each other’s scientific pursuits. Hewson cut himself while carrying out a postmortem and died of septicemia.
What sorts of research did you do while writing THE ANATOMIST’S APPRENTICE? Was there a great deal of historical research as well as medical and forensic research to be done?
While I touched on the late 18th century in my history degree, I admit I found it very dry. We learned about the political history and only touched upon at the under-belly of the amazing social upheaval of the period. When I looked deeper, I knew I’d found a rich seam of literary gold. I visited several of London’s hidden gems from this period: the Hunterian Museum in the Royal College of Surgeons – an Aladdin’s cave of samples and curiosities preserved by a leading anatomist of the period, John Hunter; Dr Samuel Johnson’s House, the Foundling Hospital, John Wesley’s house and Benjamin Franklin’s house. I also read dozens of books and trawled the internet and the more I researched, the more enthralled I became.
As far as the scientific research goes, I’m afraid I only studied rudimentary biology at school, but I’ve become more and more fascinated by the history of science and when and how discoveries have been made. The idea of applying artistic language to the wonders of the human body really appealed to me, melding art and science. A doctor friend looked over my prose and checked it for scientific accuracy.
One reviewer called it “CSI meets the Age of Reason”—do you find that an accurate description?
It’s a great tag line but perhaps it puts too much emphasis on the forensic science element of the story. It’s basically a cracking yarn interwoven with a love story, set against a fascinating historical backdrop.