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Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 45.3 (2002) 426-432

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The Original "Jaws" Attack

Gordon Bendersky


SHARK ATTACKS ON HUMANS have been a continuing source of morbidity and mortality and especially prevalent in the East Coast and Caribbean. For this reason John Singleton Copley's (1738-1815) 1778 painting, Watson and the Shark (Fig. 1), has notable relevance. There are many unique features that characterize this painting, but the most intriguing features are, first, that Copley's painting graphically documents what appears to be the earliest authenticated record of a shark attack; 1 and second, it is based on the miracle of Watson's survival, despite the extremely overwhelming odds against him.

Both the artist and the "Jaws" victim, Brook Watson (1735-1807), became renowned when Copley's monumental work was exhibited in 1778 at the Royal Academy in London. Engravings of the painting spread its fame to Europe and America.

Copley was America's greatest colonial painter. Born in Boston of Irish immigrants, he became the finest portraitist in the colonies before he turned 21. Despite his having been almost entirely self-taught, his reputation grew swiftly. Copley was considered a superb colorist and an excellent craftsman, and he was [End Page 426] innovative in depicting relatively recent events in contemporary style rather than in a classical context. By the time of his painting Sam Adams (1767), his art was gaining in political significance, and his 1768 portrait of Paul Revere is one of his most impressive. He became personally involved in the Boston Tea Party by writing a supportive letter explaining the circumstances. In the five-year interval prior to the 1783 British surrender at Yorktown, Copley visited Italy's art treasures, settled down in London, and was commissioned by Watson to paint Watson and the Shark, the first in a series of large-scale history paintings done in England. According to the historian, Louis P. Masur (1994), "perhaps no other painting by an American artist has received so much critical attention."

Brook Watson was born in England in 1735. Despite being orphaned at the age of six and the victim of a shark attack at 14, Watson had a long, colorful, and for the most part illustrious career. In 1758, prior to the American War of Independence, he served in Canada as an army officer under General James Wolfe. The following year, he became a successful merchant in London. In 1773, he led the London exporting firm of Watson and Rashleigh in shipping the tea that became the target of the Boston Tea Party: Watson's tea, shipped (coincidentally) with the help of Copley's in-laws, was dumped into the Boston Harbor. In 1775, when Colonel Ethan Allen was captured during his attack on [End Page 427] Montreal, it was Watson who took Allen in irons back to London. There was considerable evidence that Watson was opposed to American independence, as well as to the abolition of the slave trade, and some have suspected him of having been a British spy (Abrams 1979, p. 269). Watson eventually became a director of the Bank of England, a Member of Parliament (1784), and Lord Mayor of London (1796), as well as chairman of Lloyds of London. He was made a baronet in 1803. The English reformer John Wilkes (1725-1797), who actively sided with the colonists, targeted Watson with a satirical poem entitled "Brook Watson and the Wooden Leg," and the wooden leg became famous in London (Fig. 2).

Watson's famous encounter with the shark occurred in 1749, while he was swimming in Havana harbor (where he had journeyed by merchant ship). Rescuers arriving by boat saved the boy's life with much difficulty, but not before the shark had bitten off his right foot. The London Advertiser published this account of the attack:

Being at a distance of about one hundred yards from [the merchant ship] the men in the boat, who were waiting for the Captain to go on shore, were struck with horror on perceiving a shark making towards him as his devoted prey. The [End...


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