Sir Everard Home was one of the most prominent members of the Georgian scientific establishment. First and foremost he was a surgeon, and it was as a surgeon that he found favour with the third of the four Georges, being appointed Sergeant Surgeon to the King in 1808. However, he was also a distinguished comparative anatomist, and his widespread renown, and indeed his fellowship of the Royal Society, owed not a little to his work in the field of human and animal anatomy. Along the way he corresponded regularly with Joseph and Mary Anning over fossil finds on the Jurassic Coast of Lyme Regis.
All of which might suggest that Home is not an obvious example of an overlooked Londoner. Nor for that matter are the other distinguished gentlemen—John Corse and Stamford Raffles—who feature in the story I am about to tell. Be that as it may, the setting of the story in a rather dingy corner of the capital in the year 1822, and the queer incident that is its subject, are hardly the stuff of mainstream London history. So bear with me, for what follows deserves to be rescued from where it currently resides in the footnotes of our great city’s chronicles.
As said above, Home’s many interests included the structure and function of the body, both human and animal. He wrote about the stomachs of various creatures and the anatomy of the sea otter, about the mode of generation of the kangaroo and the genitalia of a hermaphroditic dog. He published works on horny excrescences, and the structure of calculi, and the properties of pus. He investigated the remarkable organ that we call the ear, and—and this is where the story properly begins—he thought long and hard about the ear of the elephant.
SEARCH FOR A SKULL
Home had been interested in the ear since at least 1799, when he delivered the Croonian Lecture on the structure and functioning of the tympanic membrane—the eardrum. His main thesis was that the tympanic membrane is activated by a system of muscular fibres, which, radiating from the bony rim of the ear, are attached to the handle of the malleus—the hammer. He also pointed out a difficulty, namely that the tympanic membrane in humans is so small, and so awkwardly situated, that close inspection of it is all but impossible. The resolution of the difficulty lay in the similarity of the ear of humans to that of elephants. And, as elephants are very much larger than humans, their ears would be very much easier to inspect.
Opportunities to do just this had been missed in 1776 and 1777 when two elephants belonging to the King died at the Royal Mews at Pimlico. Both were dissected, the first by the anatomist William Hunter, the second by his brother John. The Hunters were assisted in these dissections by Home, but neither could be persuaded to part company with an ear, which would have taken with it a considerable amount of precious skull. Nor was Home any luckier when in 1798 the naturalist John Corse returned from a ten-year residence in Hill Tipperah in Bengal, where he had worked as a surgeon in the Indian Medical Service, bringing with him the dried skulls of several elephants in which the process of desiccation had destroyed the tympanic membrane. Progress was only made when Home finally found another desiccated skull with the membrane still in place. The skull, preserved in a cask of spirit, had been sent to John Hunter, who had been too occupied with other matters to do anything with it. When Hunter died in 1793, it was removed from the cask and dried.
Best of all, though, was the skull of an elephant, only three weeks old, brought back by the colonial administrator Stamford Raffles after his time in South East Asia. This skull, which once again had been treated with spirit, presented Home with an elephant’s ear in a perfect state of preservation. What he now discovered was that the ear of a human and that of an elephant, although broadly similar, differ in certain crucial respects, a consequence of which is that the two organs of hearing are not equally sensitive to variations in sound. Whereas Mozart even as a child was able to detect flatness and sharpness with extraordinary accuracy, an elephant of any age was not remotely musical. An elephant would certainly have more acute hearing than a man—a claim substantiated by Corse—but it would be seriously deficient in tonal sensitivity.
SATISFACTION OF A SORT
Now Home wanted to test his theory of tone deafness in the field, as it were. And where better to find a living elephant than in the menagerie of Mr Edward Cross, at Exeter Change in the Strand? Cross’s menagerie, which was housed in a ramshackle building over a shopping arcade, was one of the sights of London, and its resident elephant, known as Chuny or Chunee, was a popular attraction. Chuny would come to a sad end in 1826—see here for the full story—but in 1822 he was very much alive and ready to be tested. All that was needed was the music, which Home arranged with the help of John Broadwood & Sons Ltd of Great Pulteney Street in Soho.
Broadwood & Sons were manufacturers of pianos with a reputation that was second to none. The roll-call of their illustrious professional clients already included Beethoven and would eventually extend to Chopin and Liszt and—musically less exalted but certainly accomplished in other ways—William Morris and Arthur Conan Doyle. Broadwood instruments were found everywhere, from concert halls to drawing-rooms, although one might be forgiven for raising an eyebrow at the thought of a baby grand or even a plain upright in the rank and noisy confines of Cross’s menagerie.
Home did not explain to his audience at the Royal Society how the Broadwood got up to the first floor of Exeter Change, although the operation cannot have been as taxing, or as dangerous, as installing the animals, which, along with the elephant Chuny, featured leopards named Tom and Rose, a tigress named Polly, and lions named Oliver, Brutus and Nero. However, he made a note of the fact that Broadwood put one of their piano-tuners at his disposal, and that as the notes floated into and around the mighty den of the elephant
the acute sounds seemed hardly to attract his attention; but as soon as the grave notes were struck, he became all attention, brought forward the large external ear, tried to discover where the sounds came from, remained in the attitude of listening, and after some time made noises by no means of dissatisfaction.
Home, encouraged to discover that the elephant was not entirely without musical sensibility, repeated the experiment. This time the music was supplied by a French horn—we never learn who the player was—with the same gratifying result. The sonorous low notes of the beautiful brass instrument elicited “sounds rather expressive of satisfaction than otherwise” from the enraptured creature.
But Chuny was not alone in responding to the performance of the Broadwood tuner. For one of the lions—probably Nero—was roused by the music. He had been asleep, and when the acute notes were played he
listened, with his nose resting on the bottom of his den, in perfect silence, remaining in the same position; but as soon as the grave notes were struck, he started up, endeavoured to break his confinement, lashed his tail, sprung on his hind legs, and by his fury alarmed the spectators, uttering the deepest horrid yells.
Curiously, Home drew no conclusions, and it may be that in the end the true beneficiary was not Science but Edward Cross, for whom the whole episode no doubt secured some free—and profitable—publicity.
A footnote. The transcript of Home’s lecture, which was published in the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions for the year 1823, was illustrated with drawings by William Clift. They are perhaps the finest survival of the bizarre experiment. Not only are they remarkable examples of precise anatomical observation, but they are in their own way astonishingly beautiful.
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