Dissection rooms

During the 18th century, the population of London was expanding and new hospitals were added to St Bartholomew’s and St Thomas’s: Guy’s (1726), St George’s (1733), the London (1740) and the Middlesex (1745). In the provinces, most cities and large towns opened hospitals or infirmaries: Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge in 1766 and the Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford in 1770. Expansion of the existing medical schools was accompanied in London by the founding of private medical schools, in which the teaching of anatomy was prominent. William Cheselden, a leading surgeon, taught anatomy (and physiology), in conflict with the Barber-Surgeons Company, which, with the Royal College of Physicians, claimed a monopoly of anatomical dissection. The Surgeons parted company with the Barbers in 1745 and built their Surgeons Hall, in which they taught anatomy. In 1766 William Hunter and his brother John began at 16 Great Windmill Street an anatomy school with a lecture theatre, museum and dissecting room. Anatomy teaching expanded in the London teaching hospitals, in the provinces and in Scotland. This expansion of anatomical teaching explains the demand for human bodies. Yet the law, from old statutes, allowed only a few bodies of executed criminals to be made available to the medical schools of London, Oxford and Cambridge.

Body snatching was illegal, but the law was not enforced, as the removal of the body was not a crime. The disturbance of the grave was a misdemeanour, and the robbers replaced the coffin and shroud to avoid a charge of theft. Resurrectionists were more at risk from the public than from the authorities, who were influenced by famous surgeons at reputable hospitals, a notable example being Sir Astley Cooper, twice President of the Royal College of Surgeons. The surgeons at the major hospitals gave their services to patients but their philanthropy was not without self-interest. They charged their students for clinical instruction and especially for anatomy tuition. Towards the end of the 18th century the provision of bodies for dissection became a scandal. Body snatchers were aided by undertakers, and the anatomists, aware of these sources, shared the guilt. A poor person dying in a hospital might be dissected in the medical school of that hospital. Bodies were stolen before the interment of an empty coffin weighted with stones to deceive the mourners. The ultimate crime was murder, of poor persons without relatives or friends. Burke and Hare in Edinburgh were not resurrectionists as they murdered their victims for their clients, notably the infamous Dr Knox. Burke was found guilty—on the evidence of Hare—and hanged in Edinburgh in 1829 (Douglas, 1973Go). The London ‘Burkers’ were Bishop and Williams, who resurrected between 500 and 1000 corpses. Bishop and Williams, who were convicted and hanged for the murder of three of their victims, probably murdered many more.

The response of the government to these scandals was to legalize a supply of bodies from prisons, poor law houses and hospitals. A Select Committee on Anatomy, chaired by Henry Warburton, examined the problem, with much testimony from anatomists and surgeons—Astley Cooper, Benjamin Brodie, John Abernethy and several others—and reported in 1828. On March 12, 1829, Warburton introduced his first Bill, for ‘Preventing the Unlawful Disinterment of Human Bodies, and for Regulating Schools of Anatomy’, but this failed due to opposition in the Lords. Ten days after the execution of Bishop and Williams, Warburton introduced his second Anatomy Bill. Debate now was muted, the main opponent in the Commons being Henry Hunt, MP. William Cobbett vehemently denounced the Bill in his Political Register. Despite the eloquence of ‘Orator Hunt’, the Bill passed the Commons and Lords and became law on August 1, 1832 (The Statutes of the UK and Ireland, 1932Go).

This Act for ‘Regulating Schools of Anatomy’ required the Home secretary ‘to appoint’ not fewer than ‘Three persons to be Inspectors of Places [to be approved] where Anatomy is carried on’ and to license members of the medical profession ‘to practice Anatomy’. Executors had to respect the desire not to be dissected, expressed in writing or verbally, either by the deceased or a near relative. Undertakers were prohibited from these decisions. No body was to be moved for dissection until 48 h after death and 24 h after permission had been given by an inspector. Bodies had to be moved in a ‘decent coffin’ and after dissection ‘be decently interred in consecrated ground or, in some public burial place … of the religious Persuasion’ to which the deceased belonged. Prior legislation authorizing the dissection of an executed criminal was repealed, important in separating anatomical dissection from the punishment of a criminal.

The Anatomy Act of 1832 is a milestone of anatomical teaching in Great Britain, legalizing and controlling anatomical dissection. One consequence was that accurate figures were now available. In the following year, 609 bodies were provided for anatomy, 394 from parish workhouses, 135 from hospitals, 24 from prisons and hulks, 5 from asylums and 51 from dwellings. Clearly, the poor dying in workhouses were the chief source of bodies. The Act solved most of the problems of the anatomists, and the theft of bodies ended. Persons admitted to a workhouse or hospital may have feared being dissected if they died in these institutions, though they were protected by the safeguards of the 1832 Act, as described earlier. Whether the wishes of the subjects or their relatives were respected, depended how sensitive to these were the anatomists of the 19th century and subsequent years.

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