*This article first appeared on Wonders & Marvels as a part of a series of monthly contributions by The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice. 

If you visit the Gordon Museum at Guy’s Hospital in London, you will see a small bladder stone—no bigger than 3 centimetres across.  Besides the fact that it has been sliced open to reveal concentric circles within, it is entirely unremarkable in appearance. Yet, this tiny stone was the source of enormous pain for 53-year-old Stephen Pollard, who agreed to undergo surgery to remove it in 1828.

Many people suffered from bladder stones during the early modern period. Depending on their size, these stones could block the flow of urine into the bladder from the kidneys; or, they could prevent the flow of urine out of the bladder through the urethra. Either situation was potentially lethal. In the first instance, the kidney is slowly destroyed by pressure from the urine; in the second instance, the bladder swells and eventually bursts, leading to infection and finally death.

Bladder stones were unimaginably painful for those who suffered from them during this period. Many acted in desperation, going to great lengths to rid themselves of the agony. In the early 18th century, one man reportedly drove a nail through his penis and then used a blacksmith’s hammer to break the stone apart until the pieces were small enough to pass through his urethra. [1]

It is not a surprise, then, that many sufferers chose to undergo surgery. Although the operation itself lasted only a matter of minutes, lithotomic procedures were painful, dangerous and humiliating. The patient—naked from the waist down—was bound in such a way as to ensure an unobstructed view of his genitals and anus [see illustration].  Afterwards, the surgeon passed a curved, metal tube up the patient’s penis and into the bladder. He then slid a finger into the man’s rectum, feeling for the stone. Once he had located it, his assistant removed the metal tube and replaced it with a wooden staff. This staff acted as a guide so that the surgeon did not fatally rupture the patient’s rectum or intestines as he began cutting deeper into the bladder.  Once the staff was in place, the surgeon cut diagonally through the fibrous muscle of the scrotum until he reached the wooden staff. Next, he used a probe to widen the hole, ripping open the prostate gland in the process. At this point, the wooden staff was removed and the surgeon used forceps to extract the stone from the bladder.

Unfortunately for Stephen Pollard, what should have lasted 5 minutes ended up lasting 55 minutes under the gaze of 200 spectators. The surgeon, Bransby Cooper fumbled and panicked, cursing the patient loudly for having “a very deep perineum,” while the patient, in turn, cried: “Oh! let it go; —pray, let it keep in!’”

When Thomas Wakley heard of this medical disaster, he railed against Cooper in The Lancet, accusing him of incompetence and implying he had only been appointed surgeon to Guy’s Hospital because he was the nephew of the well-known surgeon, Sir Astley Cooper. Later, Cooper sued Wakley for libel. The judge reluctantly awarded him £100 in damages. [2]

But Cooper’s reputation, like his patient, never recovered. Sadly, Pollard survived the surgery only to die the next day. His autopsy revealed that it was indeed the skill of his surgeon, and not his alleged “abnormal anatomy,” which was the cause of his death.

1. Druin Burch, Digging up the Dead: Uncovering the Life and Times of an Extraordinary Surgeon (2007), p. 26. I am greatly indebted to his work for bringing this story to my attention.
2. Thomas Wakley, A Report of the Trial of Cooper v. Wakley (1829), pp. 4-5.