Busted! A medical plagiarist exposed

The index for Volume 5 of The Lancet, published in 1824, contains this intriguing entry:

piracy

Indexes are not often used to pursue feuds, but the story behind this entry was a bitter rivalry which lasted for several years.  So who was ‘Simon Pure’, and why had he aroused the wrath of the editor of The Lancet?  ‘Simon Pure’ was the alter ego of Frederick Tyrrell, a surgeon at St Thomas’s Hospital in London, and his crimes are laid bare on page 82:

We have received a number of communications on the subject of the recent exploit of the consistent and conscientious person who unites the characters of a champion of “Hole and Corner” Surgery, and a humble transcriber of the pages of The Lancet

“Hole and Corner” surgery is a pejorative term, referring to the practice of conducting surgery in private, without allowing other surgeons or students to view proceedings.  In the 1820s there was a growing campaign to open up the medical profession to more scrutiny, and “Hole and Corner” surgeons were those most resistant to this tendency.

We insert the following letter with a view of asking Mr. Tyrrell to judge of the feeling which his exploit excited among those who are possessed of the volumes of The Lancet, and who have been ensnared into paying half a guinea for the twelve Lectures which the real Simon Pure has nearly transcribed from our pages, not only without acknowledgment, but under the fake pretence that his is the only correct and authentic copy.

On the face of it, this is a simple case of plagiarism: Tyrrell, under the pseudonym ‘Simon Pure’, has been transcribing large chunks of the journal and selling copies, in flagrant breach of copyright.  But there’s a bit more to it than that: ‘Simon Pure’ and The Lancet had history.

Although not a prominent figure, Pure/Tyrrell was influential: his uncle was Sir Astley Cooper, the most celebrated surgeon in England.  In 1824 The Lancet was far from being a pillar of the medical establishment.  Under the leadership of its founding editor Thomas Wakley, The Lancet started life as a campaigning journal which regularly exposed abuses and corruption.  The previous year it had published a series of unflattering articles about St Thomas’s, daring to suggest to one of the hospital’s surgeons that his delay in operating on a patient with a fractured leg had resulted in his death.

Not all took kindly to the journal’s dedication to openness, and Frederick Tyrrell was one of three officials who signed an order banning Wakley from the premises of St Thomas’s.  The journal later lampooned the three men as the ‘three Ninnyhammers’.

You might think that The Lancet held the moral high ground here.  Well…up to a point.  The lectures that Tyrrell/Pure had been ‘plagiarising’ from the pages of The Lancet had been given by his uncle Sir Astley Cooper.   Not only that – The Lancet had printed them without his permission!  Luckily Wakley and Cooper were old friends, and when the latter burst into the journal’s offices to protest at the breach of his copyright there was a lot of laughter, and the matter was resolved amicably.

So personal enmity between Tyrrell and Wakley, rather than natural justice, was the reason for the high-minded tone of this article.  And there was a sting in the tail: intent on revenge, Wakley set a dastardly trap to prove that Tyrrell was a plagiarist who was stealing The Lancet’s copy, instead of borrowing and reprinting his uncle’s original texts as he claimed.  The following announcement appeared in the next issue of the journal:

In a note appended to the advertisement at the commencement of the present volume, we stated that Mr. Tyrrell had so faithfully transcribed our pages, that he had fallen into the snare of his own cupidity; to prove this, we will now lay before our readers the following paragraph, taken from Mr. Tyrrell’s Lectures:

There follows an excerpt from the lectures as printed by ‘Simon Pure’.  But alas!  ‘Simon Pure’ has fallen for a con trick:

What will the Profession think of this champion of “Hole and Corner” surgery, this only authentic publisher of Sir Astley Cooper’s lectures, this “doubly veritable Simon Pure,” when we state that not a single word of the above paragraph was uttered by Sir Astley Cooper; in confirmation of this we appeal to Sir Astley himself — to the gentlemen who attended the lectures.  We do not think it necessary, at this moment, to relate the circumstance which occasioned the insertion of the above passage, and shall look only, at what it has proved, viz. that you may ensnare the goose instead of the fox.

Busted!

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