Professor Alcock’s Dilemma
by Madeleine D’Arcy
Professor Benjamin Alcock walked slowly up the drive towards Queen’s College against a cold November breeze. His greatcoat flapped against his knees and he held his collar tight around his neck. He had forgotten to bring his hat – it lay useless on the hall table back in Camden Place – and his impending interview with the College President did nothing to improve his dismal mood.
From the topmost Eastern gable of the College building, the statue of Queen Victoria looked down on him from her airy perch. He fancied that she watched him with an air of censure; even the college walls themselves seemed to sneer as he approached them.
Alcock, the Professor of Anatomy, wondered why on earth he had not ascertained more information about his post before accepting it. When he arrived in Cork in 1849 he’d been in an uncharacteristically optimistic frame of mind, but now, two years later, he was almost at his wits’ end. He’d found himself at odds with the College President, Sir Robert Kane, almost from the beginning. Today, the President had asked to see him at nine o’clock, before his lecture at thirty minutes past that hour, and Alcock knew the interview would not be pleasant.
As he drew near the grand stone archway that led into the College Quad, he beheld a peculiar sight. Underneath the archway, a young woman danced, alone. In a sky-blue crinoline dress, with dark hair flowing down her back, she moved gracefully in her solitary waltz, as if caught by the breeze.
‘Emily?’ Alcock said, aloud. It could not be – of course it could not be – but still he ran towards her, calling out her name. ‘Is it really you, my Emily?’
She turned her pale face towards him. It was her face, that fine-boned face, and those were her honest eyes. She smiled at him as she began to fade, and in a moment she was gone.
Trembling, Alcock stood beneath the archway, staring at the spot where Emily had been. But Emily, to his enduring sorrow, had been dead for nigh on 25 years.
The product of some mild delirium, he told himself, as he walked away. An illusion, brought on on by anxiety perhaps, and too much claret the night before. The claret had tasted bitter; perhaps it had been corked. To be sure, he’d quaffed a fair amount last night, sitting close to the fire, as he read Walden by a fellow called Thoreau, until the words began to blur upon the page. Nothing but claret seemed to bolster him these days. At any rate, he consoled himself that it was preferable to opium, or to ether.
He did not wish to think of Emily, for it caused him too much pain. He’d first laid eyes on her at a Medical Ball in Dublin, back in 1825, and straight away he’d sought her favour. He was in his first teaching post, at the Park Street School and she was but 19, five years his junior. How she loved to dance and laugh, his Emily, so beautiful and kind. Dancing? And himself a studious dullard with two left feet! She’d teach him, she insisted, and so she did. She made of him a happy man, both light of foot and light of heart, but only for a fleeting time. Consumption took her before their wedding day, and left him inconsolable.
After her death, he’d danced no more. Now, work was all that mattered: the perfect slice of the scalpel; the art of a precise incision; the revelations of a glistening map of tendons, arteries and veins; the joy of deciphering order from such chaos; the pleasure of comprehending the symmetry in which each structure related to another; the satisfaction of understanding a symphony of bone and tissue, flesh and blood.
Alcock stood in the Quad for a moment to collect his wits. Two portly men talked ponderously together near the East Wing while they smoked their pipes. Alcock hoped they had not heard him cry out Emily’s name. A student rushed past, clutching his notecase. Still shaken, Alcock checked his fob watch. He sighed, before making his way across the lawn to knock on the President’s door.
The porter, Jimmy, in his greasy jacket, limped along the corridor and bade him wait a moment.
‘I’ll tell the President you’re here,’ he grunted, with his usual lack of civility.
Alcock hung his greatcoat upon a hook and paused to check his appearance in the mirror. As he nervously adjusted his cravat, Emily’s face appeared beside his own reflection – her eyebrows raised as if to ask a question – but when he whirled around, she was no more.
The porter limped back down the hall.
‘Sir Robert is ready for you now,’ he said, as Alcock wiped his eyes.
In his wood-panelled office, Sir Robert Kane sat at a large mahogany desk, in front of several piles of paperwork.
‘Take a seat, Alcock. I’ll be with you in an instant.’
Alcock sat down before the desk, in a stiff-backed mahogany chair.
Kane inked his signature on a piece of paper and blotted it carefully, before putting it aside. Then he folded his arms on the desk and stared at Alcock.
‘I’ll come directly to the point,’ he said. ‘There are not enough cadavers for your students to dissect, and – despite repeated requests – you have failed to act. The problem must be solved, else we shall lose our students and be obliged to shut down the Medical School altogether.’
‘If you please, Sir Robert, my duty is to fulfil my roles as teacher, researcher and doctor. It is the College’s role to provide materials for students.’
Kane looked vexed. ‘Professor Alcock, it is your task to furnish subjects for your anatomy classes and it must be done. Other anatomists have no problem whatsoever with such procedures.’
‘Even if these procedures include paying the poorhouses for their corpses? Are we to treat those paupers as if they have no right to give or to refuse consent? It surely goes against the letter and intent of the Anatomy Act…’
‘It is quite in order and merely what every other tutor of anatomy does as a matter of course. You will attend at the poorhouse, pass over the purse and collect the subjects. How burdensome can it be?’
‘Sir, these people own nothing but their bodies and their hopes of heaven,’ protested Alcock. ‘I do not wish to wrong them. You are calling on me to commit a misdemeanour.’
‘Fiddlesticks, Alcock. O’Connor, the Inspector, has checked the matter with Sir John Long and here’ – Kane picked up a piece of paper and flourished it at Alcock – ‘he expressly states that you may obtain bodies from the poorhouse by claiming to be a friend of the deceased. The College, therefore, demands this course of action and if you do not comply, I promise you there will be consequences.’
Alcock sighed. As he’d expected, there would be no leeway in this matter. It could not be denied that dissection was essential to the advancement of medicine – and neither could it be denied that no other anatomist appeared to share his own reservations in this matter. Besides, if he did not agree, he’d surely be black-listed.
‘I will consider what you say, Sir Robert,’ he said, reluctantly.
A troubled Alcock left the President’s office. Since arriving at Queen’s, four years ago, his working life had become almost unbearable. The facilities assigned to the Medical Department were pitifully inadequate. The students complained about their conditions. Alcock had been forced to dispute his fees, to Kane’s intense displeasure. When the Triennial Visitors had upheld Alcock’s case in May, Kane was even more enraged. There had been problems concerning lack of staff, removal of a porter and unsolved thefts from the Anatomy Department. Alcock had lost his temper more than once and knew he’d gained a reputation for being vexatious. Now, the increasing scarcity of subjects for dissection had become a bitter topic of dissension and Alcock would be obliged to go against his conscience – for what else could he do?
He resolved to put all thoughts of his dilemma aside until his teaching hours were over and walked across to the Clarendon Building where the students awaited.
In the classroom used for teaching anatomical theory, the smell of smouldering turf was welcome in the fetid air, though the room was still as cold as ice.
A diligent student named Devereaux was tending to the fire. Stooped before the fireplace, still wearing his brown tweed coat, he held a sheet of newspaper across the grate. Another student, Cleary, stood beside him, puffing on his pipe. ‘Good work,’ he said. ‘Soon enough we’ll have a decent blaze.’
A dozen or so others stood about the room, and most still wore their coats. Cadogan and Hartley stood together in a corner, talking loudly and taking nips of something from a hip flask. A pair of crass young men, those two were close, so close it was rumoured they shared their women. Clever, no doubt, and wealthy too, but if it were in Professor Alcock’s power, he’d gladly fail them both. The careless way they treated the bodies of the dead gave him no reason to expect they’d treat the living with much civility.
The students settled on the benches while Alcock found his chalk and wrote a list upon the blackboard. He took a copy of Thomas Pole’s The Anatomic Illustrator from one pocket of his greatcoat and a sheaf of blue-inked papers from the other. He placed them on his table and began to teach.
Alcock had grown accustomed to returning home on foot, but today he could not face the half hour journey. Though he believed that walking greatly benefitted the constitution, today he could not cope… the stench of the streets, the beggars who would constantly importune him, the terrible desperation of the women at the fountains, who pushed and cursed each other as they struggled to get clean water, the destitution and the poverty… today, of all days, he could not face the filth and squalor of the city. He hailed a passing hackney carraige to take him back to the stolid respectability of Camden Place.
At home, Alcock dined alone on lamb cutlets and potatoes. He drank a bottle of claret and bade his manservant bring another, before dismissing him for the night. He stared into the fire and drank until his eyelids drooped, then dragged himself to bed.
In the morning, Alcock forced himself out of doors, complete with hat, gloves and cane, for a cold wind blew once more. The taste of last night’s claret was still bitter on his tongue and he would have preferred to stay abed, but he was duty-bound; the students would await him in the Dissection Room.
Once again as he approached the college, the wraith of Emily danced gracefully in the archway. His lonely old heart thumped in his chest as he watched her waltzing all alone. ‘Emily,’ he whispered, as she smiled at him again and faded from his view.
The door of the Dissection Room was half-open. Alcock walked quietly to the doorway and looked in. He had forbidden anyone to enter, unless accompanied by Dr Hobart the demonstrator, or himself. Cadogan and Hartley did not notice him, since they were having too much sport.
A female corpse lay naked on the rough wooden table, while Hartley tugged at her stiff wrist. ‘Pray give me a hand, good lady,’ he said, smirking.
At the end of the table, Cadogan made to push the corpse’s legs apart, while saying, in the lewdest of tones, ‘I would most willingly service this one, Hartley, would not you?’
A pair of craven oafs, thought Alcock in disgust.
‘You wretched imbeciles – have you no respect?’ he roared at Cadogan and Hartley.
As the two young men backed away from the dissecting table, Alcock’s gaze fell on the corpse.
‘Emily!’ he gasped, in shock, for it was Emily who lay there, on the rough wooden surface – her delicate face framed by her long dark hair.
In haste, Alcock dragged his greatcoat off and covered her naked body. Tears coursed down his face, until, mercifully, his vision blurred, forcing him to blink his eyes. When he opened them again, Emily was no longer there. On the dissection table lay an older woman, with altogether different features and curly light brown hair.
There would be no classes today, Alcock told the students. Tomorrow he would teach, but now he had to meet Sir Robert Kane. Cadogan and Hartley smirked at one another and slunk away.
Jimmy the porter opened the President’s door.
‘I will see him now,’ said Alcock, striding down the hall.
‘What – what?’ said Kane, looking up in some confusion to where Alcock stood at the side of his desk.
‘I wish to inform you that I will not take corpses from the poorhouse, unless there is proper written consent – no matter what the consequences.’
‘Good Lord, Alcock, you are a wretched fool,’ exploded Kane. ‘I will report your insubordination to the Board. Mark my words – you’ll never hold a medical post in these isles again.’
In the Quad, Alcock stood alone, breathing in the crisp cold air. His lungs still worked. His blood still coursed in his veins. His whole life had been devoted to the investigation of such functions. They had been his fascination. Only Emily had mattered more. What will become of me? he wondered.
He knew not what impulse caused him to look up, but there they were – a mass of small birds rippling like waves across the ice-blue sky, joined in a trice with hundreds more, slewing back and forth, in a breath-taking ballet of flight. A murmuration of starlings – he’d read of it somewhere – perhaps in that fellow Thoreau’s book? A dance of birds, a miracle of synchronised flight, an act of grace.
For a moment, he felt exalted – held in an embrace – as once he used to be, when Emily danced with him.
This story originated from The Uncanny: UCC Ghost and Horror Stories, which was the first module of the inaugural MA in Creative Writing at UCC. The workshops, taught by the writer Alannah Hopkin, took place from 18th to 21st September 2013.
Among the many topics discussed during the workshop were ‘The Bodysnatcher’ by Robert Louis Stephenson and the potential of University College Cork as the setting for a ghost story.
Prior to fulfilling the written requirement of the module, I investigated the Windle Building (formerly the Clarendon Building), which housed the School of Medicine’s Dissection Room in 1849. During further research on the founding of the School of Medicine and on social conditions during that era, I discovered Professor Benjamin Alcock and felt compelled to write about him.
Professor Alcock was the first Professor of Anatomy appointed to Queen’s College, Cork (now UCC). He was born in Kilkenny in 1801 and became a distinguished anatomist, biologist and surgical teacher. He is best known for his work on the pudendal nerve; in fact, the pudendal canal is still known as ‘Alcock’s Canal’.
Alcock was appointed to his post in 1849. He was asked to resign from that post in December 1853 and was dismissed in 1855.
The cause for his dismissal stemmed from his refusal to act illegally in procuring corpses for the purpose of dissection; it had been suggested to him that he ‘should obtain subjects from the poorhouse by claiming bodies in the capacity of a friend of the deceased’ (O’Rahilly, 1948).
Since the Anatomy Act 1832, the ‘middlemen’ (i.e. the bodysnatchers) had more or less been removed from the business of providing the necessary corpses for dissection. The medical schools were experiencing an increasing scarcity of corpses. It was permissible to donate one’s body for dissection, or to obtain corpses from poorhouse, but the letter of the law required consent. However, in the case of paupers, the consent and the related paperwork appear to have been largely ignored.
Alcock appealed his dismissal to no avail and there seems to be no record of him working again in Ireland or the British Isles.
The Irish Journal of Medical Science states that Cameron (1916) noted of Alcock: ‘In 1859, being then unmarried, he went to America, and has not since been heard of.’
The character of Emily is entirely fictional.