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Biographical entry Swan, Joseph (1791 - 1874)

MRCS Oct 1st 1813; FRCS Dec 11th 1843; one of the original 300 Fellows.

4 October 1874
Filey, Yorkshire, UK
General surgeon


The son of Henry Swan, Surgeon to the County Hospital at Lincoln, where his ancestors had been doctors for several generations. He was apprenticed to his father, and was sent to the United Borough Hospitals in 1810. He became a pupil of Henry Cline the younger, and gained the warm friendship of Astley Cooper, who sent him annually a Christmas present of a subject in a hamper labelled 'Glass with care', to enable him to continue his anatomical dissections of the nerves. Sir Astley's example was imitated by John Abernethy.

He studied abroad for a short time after qualifying, and then settled at Lincoln, where he was elected Surgeon to the County Hospital on Jan 8th, 1814. He won the Jacksonian Prize at the College of Surgeons in 1817 with his essay, "On Deafness and Diseases and Injuries of the Organ of Hearing", and in 1819 he gained the prize a second time with a dissertation, "On the Treatment of Morbid Local Affections of Nerves". He was awarded in 1822-1824 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”. The Triennial Prize was again awarded to him in 1825-1827 for "A Minute Dissection of the Cerebral Nerves from their Origin to their Termination and to the Conjunction with the Nerves of the Medulla Spinalis and Viscera, authenticated by Preparations of the Dissected Parts". Swan's success is the more remarkable when it is borne in mind that the Triennial Prize has only been given twelve times since it was first offered for competition in 1822. The College had so high an opinion of his merits that he was voted its honorary Gold Medal in 1825.

Swan resigned his office of Surgeon to the Lincoln County Hospital on Feb 26th, 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 until the end of his life, never attaining any practice as a surgeon, but doing much for naked-eye anatomy.

He was elected a life member of the Council of the College of Surgeons in 1831, but resigned after a severe attack of illness in 1870. He then retired to Filey, in Yorkshire, where he died on Oct 4th, 1874, and was buried in Filey Churchyard. He never married.

Swan was a born anthropotomist, for there is but little to show that he was greatly interested in the anatomy of birds, beasts, or fish. He had a native genius for dissection, and the kindness of his friends kept him supplied with the necessary material. Of a retiring and modest disposition, he remained personally almost unknown, and the value of his work long remained unappreciated.

A Demonstration of the Nerves of the Human Body in twenty-five plates with explanations. Imperial fol., London, 1830; republished 1865. 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 in the possession of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, presented in 1865 by Mrs Machin, of Gateford Hill, Worksop, widow of the nephew and residuary legatee of Joseph Swan. A cheaper edition of this work was issued in 1884, with plates engraved by Finden. It was translated into French, Paris, 4to, 1838.
An Account of a New Method of Making Dried Anatomical Preparations, 8vo, London, N.D.; 2nd ed., 1820; 3rd ed., 1833.
A Dissertation on the Treatment of Morbid Local Affections of the Nerves (Jacksonian Prize Essay for 1819), 8vo, London, 1820; translated into German, 8vo, Leipzig, 1824.
Observations on Some Points relating to the Anatomy, Physiology and Pathology of the Nervous System, 8vo, London, 1822.
A Treatise on Diseases and Injuries of the Nerves (a new edition), 8vo, London, 1834; This seems to be a re-issue of the two previous works.
An Enquiry into the Action of Mercury on the Living Body, 8vo, London, 1822; 3rd ed., 1847.
An Essay on Tetanus, 8vo, London, 1825.
An Essay on the Connection between . . . the Heart . . . and . . . the Nervous System . . . particularly its Influence . . . on Respiration, 8vo, London, 1822; reprinted, 1829.
Illustrations of the Comparative Anatomy of the Nervous System, 4to, plates, London, 1835.
The Principal Offices of the Brain and other Centres, 8vo, London, 1844.
The Physiology of the Nerves of the Uterus and its Appendages, 8vo, London, 1844.
The Nature and Faculties of the Sympathetic Nerve, 8vo, London, 1847.
Plates of the Brain in Explanation of its Physical Faculties, etc., 4to, London, 1853.
The Brain in its Relation to Mind, 8vo, London, 1854.
On the Origin of the Visual Powers of the Optic Nerve, 4to, London, 1856.
Papers on the Brain, 8vo, London, 1862.
Delineation of the Brain in Relation to Voluntary Motion, 4to, London, 1864.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Dict. Nat. Biog., sub nomine et auct. ibi cit.].

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