A Day in the Life of John Keats, Medical Student and Assistant Surgeon

Hrileena Ghosh is the author of the latest volume in the English Association Monographs series,  John Keats’ Medical Notebook. Her study explores the poet’s manuscript medical Notebook from his time at Guy’s Hospital (October 1815 – March 1816), recovering the intriguing and mutually enriching connections between Keats’ two careers of medicine and poetry. In this blog post, Ghosh reconstructs a day in the life of Keats’ work as a medical student and assistant surgeon.

John Keats enrolled as a medical student at Guy’s Hospital on 1 October 1815. He registered for several lecture courses, purchased a set of basic surgical instruments and some notebooks, and secured lodgings close to the hospital at 28, St Thomas’ Street, Southwark. For the next eighteen months – as it turned out – his life would be governed by the rhythms of the hospital schedule.

He was one of 159 students who signed up to attend a course on ‘Anatomy, and the Operations of Surgery’ delivered jointly by Astley Cooper and Henry Cline Junior. He also seems to have signed up for two courses on the ‘Practice of Medicine’ taught by William Babington and James Curry, two on Chemistry by Babington, Alexander Marcet and William Allen, and one on the ‘Theory of Medicine and Materia Medica’ by Curry and Henry Cholmeley. Given that Keats registered as a surgeon’s pupil for the longer (and more expensive) duration of a year rather than the six months mandated to qualify as an apothecary, he almost certainly attended Astley Cooper’s solo lecture course on ‘The Principles and Practice of Surgery’. Additionally, he purchased a ticket with ‘perpetual validity’ for William Allen’s lectures on ‘Experimental Philosophy’, at which he would have been exposed to cutting-edge research by a scientist of high repute.

As a pupil, Keats would have been expected to spend his days at the hospital. Most of his lecture courses had commenced by the second week of October, and he would be expected to present himself at the hospital by half past nine in the morning. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays his day would begin with lectures on the ‘Practice of Medicine’, while on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays they would commence with a course on Chemistry. At 11 am each day he would have headed to the dissecting rooms for the scheduled course of dissections conducted by the ‘Demonstrator’ Joseph Henry Green. The only exception was Wednesday, which was ‘taking-in’ day at Guy’s Hospital when new cases were assessed: pupils might choose to assist in the surgery instead. After the dissections, Keats would have joined his fellow students in following the surgeons on their rounds and learning the arts of diagnoses and post-operative care by practical example, or in observing operations conducted by them.

The lecture course on ‘Anatomy, and the Operations of Surgery’ should have taken place in the afternoons – but it was delayed till January. No matter: pupils were expected to spend any free time they had in dissecting, as this was considered the only way to acquire the knowledge of anatomy necessary to a surgeon. In the evenings, Keats had lectures on the ‘Theory and Practice of Medicine’ to attend, and once a week William Allen’s ‘Experimental Philosophy’ lectures as well. Thereafter, he would have headed over to St Thomas’ Hospital, to take his place at Astley Cooper’s wildly popular lectures on ‘The Principles and Practice of Surgery’. These were advertised for 8 pm, and it would have been quite late before Keats was free for the evening. He may still have ventured out afterwards – to the theatre, to play billiards with fellow-students, or to Vauxhall Gardens, where he once conceived a passion for a woman he saw ungloving her hand. Medical students had a reputation for hard living, and by all accounts Keats was no exception.

In January 1816 Cooper and Cline Junior’s delayed course on ‘Anatomy, and the Operations of Surgery’ finally started, and Keats spent his afternoons in the lecture theatre taking the medical notes that survive in his manuscript Medical Notebook. If his days were already rather full, from 3 March 1816 they became more so: Keats was appointed dresser to the surgeon William ‘Billie’ Lucas Junior for the next year. This was a senior post, akin to an assistant surgeon: dressers were important contributors to the hospital’s functioning. They assisted surgeons in operations, were primarily responsible for pre- and post-operative care, and were expected to take charge of the surgery on ‘taking-in’ day. Each dresser was also the ‘Duty’ dresser for several weeks, spending his nights at the hospital and responsible for attending to any emergencies – the equivalent of a modern resident medical officer. Perhaps it is not surprising that Keats’ medical notes for ‘Anatomy, and the Operations of Surgery’ taper off roughly mid-way through the course: he likely didn’t have time to write up lecture notes, and as a dresser he may even have had to take an active part in the lectures by assisting with dissections and demonstrations.

Keats received his Licentiate Certificate – enabling him to practice as an apothecary – on 25 July 1816, and continued to work at Guy’s Hospital as a dresser till 3 March 1817. Despite his busy schedule, he wrote at least thirty-five and possibly as many as thirty-nine poems during this period, including the longer poems Sleep and Poetry and ‘I stood tip-toe’, as well as his first true masterpiece: the ‘Chapman’s Homer’ sonnet. Keats’ medical career may have kept him extremely busy, but it did not hamper his poetic creativity: on the contrary this bubbled up in his medical pursuits as well – as the notes in his surviving Medical Notebook show.

For more information on John Keats’ Medical Notebook, please visit our website.