NEW ! !
Dutch author Michiel Roscam Abbing has just published his research into the early history of the Dundee Elephant.
It makes for fascinating reading - click here for more details...
The full title...
An Account of the Accidental Death of an Elephant in Dundee in the year 1706,
described by an Engraver resident in that Town.
Together with some Short Remarks on the Hall of Rarities,
and the Life of Dr Patrick Blair, including Extracts from his remarkable Essay
Osteographia Elephantina Taodunensis
published by The Royal Society of London in 1710.
The Whole Presented to the Public by 'Senex', Dundee, 1830
What's it about?
Just outside Dundee, in April 1706, an elephant sighs forlornly, topples over, and drowns in a ditch by the side of the road from Broughty Ferry. Foiling almost all the energetic attempts of the citizenry to make off with large chunks of meat, and other elephantine trophies, local surgeon, botanist and anatomist Dr Patrick Blair embarks on a mission to be the first in Britain to dissect an elephant and to complete a pioneering scientific study of the dead animal's internal organs and skeleton. Blair intends to publish a grand and definitive essay on the Osteology of the Elephant; and hopes that this work, if accepted by Sir Hans Sloane's Royal Society, will make his name as a scientist, and ease his entry into the community of philosophers of England (or the about-to-be-united Great Britain).
One of Blair's associates is Gilbert Orum, harassed debtor, neglected husband, harassed father, under-employed tradesman; and skilled copper engraver. In the last of these capacities, he is engaged by Blair to assist in the messier moments of the dissection, and to make engravings of the elephant's internal organs and skeleton. Far from being inspired by this historic task, Orum is much more concerned about keeping clear of all his creditors, or - if he cannot avoid them - repaying his debts with anything other than what he lacks most: ready cash. Some of the more unusual body-parts from the dissected elephant become a form of currency in his endeavours to pay off the butcher, the baker, the chandler, the blacksmith.
Orum also has troubles in his family-life - his wife is sickly and suffers from extreme nervousness; so do all his children; he is relentlessly pursued by a no-longer-young woman, who waits only for his wife's death to capture the widower for herself; he needs be swift to avoid the baker's wife, a large lady of a whimsical age, who is keen to convert his debts into 'certain services'; and he feels obliged to look out for his older brother, who leads a chaotic life with his family of ten. Orum is torn in his feelings about Blair - between his gratitude to the doctor for treating his wife and family and for providing him with occasional work, and his contempt for a man whom he sees driven only by ambition and an insatiable urge to dissect, to the detriment of all other human qualities.
The people of Scotland are, at the time of the death of the Elephant, greatly diverted by the proposed Union of the Parliaments. At almost the same time as the elephant expires, the Commissioners, who are to draw up the Act of Union, begin their negotiations. A number of the great and worthy of Dundee have much to gain and lose by the Act of Union; Blair himself is a closet Jacobite, but wishes none of his sympathies to get in the way of his scientific ambitions.
Reviews, Interviews and Discussions
- Scottish Review of Books. 'Unforgettable... An amusing read, with acute insights...'
- Scotland on Sunday. 'A proper treat and a joy to consume...'
- The Scotsman. 'The whole is engaging and convincing...'
Click here to read some of these discussions and interviews...
For reasons I suppose I can understand, some reviewers have cast doubt on the very existence of my hero, Gilbert Orum. No, honestly: he really did
live and work in Dundee in the early 18th century, and really did
do engravings of the elephant for Dr Blair.
If you want to learn more about the Elephant, or the people involved in its dissection,