Isobel Weinberg: Doctors, Dissection, and Resurrection Men

I’m glad I learnt anatomy via the declining art of full body dissection. I’ll be dining out on the stories for years. It’s one of the first things that people ask about when they learn I’m a medical student, and they aren’t satisfied until they’ve heard details: the smell, the cadaver’s pallor, the grisly chill of the dissection room. To me, this fascination indicates a popular obsession with medicine’s uncomfortable position somewhere between the heroic and the macabre. Doctors are portrayed as upstanding, life-saving, laudable; but also as grisly and mysterious. They alone are allowed to slice open humans, terminate foetuses, break societal taboos.

The uncomfortable relationship between doctors and the darker side of life is the subject of a new exhibition at the Museum of London entitled Doctors, Dissection, and Resurrection Men. It explores the nineteenth century practice of stealing corpses from graves to sell to medical schools. It is a beautifully presented account of the how a shortage of cadavers for dissection forced surgeons into grubby partnership with criminals and murderers.

In the early nineteenth century, the only strictly legal source of bodies was executed murderers, numbering a few annually. This fell drastically short of demand: all medical students were expected to dissect three bodies. There was a perpetual shortage. “I only got a leg and a thigh,” wrote one disgruntled medical student in 1878.

However, there was a legal loophole: a body was not defined as property and couldn’t be stolen, meaning that the punishment for bodysnatching was minimal. With a fresh corpse worth a month’s wages, many were willing to drop over cemetery walls by night and remove bodies from their graves to sell to anatomists. The “resurrection men” became infamous.

Necessity conscripted the elite medical profession into uncomfortable collaboration with these criminals. Surgeons bought bodies for teaching demonstrations and private study. One eminent surgeon boasted that there was no one whose body he could not acquire.

The resurrection men were loathed. People were terrified of having their body dissected, and an industry in cast iron coffins and tripwires linked to loaded pistols sprung up. This panic wasn’t helped by the conviction in 1828 of Burke and Hare, who made the grubby practice a shade darker: they had murdered the people they sold.  Similar scandals followed: in the “Italian Boy” case, the three murderers were caught because the boy’s body was still warm when they tried to sell it.

Doctors, Dissection and Ressurection Men is a superb exhibition. The catalyst for its conception was the 2006 discovery of a burial ground at the Royal London Hospital, used between 1825 and 1841.  What excavators found fascinating about the remains was that many showed evidence of dissection.  In one eerie exhibit, a skull is presented next to an anatomy manual: the holes drilled in the skull match those in the textbook. Some bones were found still wired together, showing they had been used to create articulated skeletons for teaching.  As a medical student, this gave me a jolt:  I was suddenly forced to make the connection between the sadness of a human grave and those grinning skeletons hanging in the dissection room.

The heyday of the resurrection men eventually came to an end with the passing of the Anatomy Act of 1832.  This allowed “unclaimed bodies” in hospitals, workhouses, and prisons to be handed over to medics for dissection. This was defended as being for the greater good.  Although the Act succeeded in putting the resurrection men out of business, it was deeply unpopular, leaving a “long legacy of fear” that falling destitute would mean losing your body to the state. Incredibly, the act wasn’t overturned until 2004, when the Alder Hey scandal triggered the Human Tissue Act, which specified that personal consent be required for body donation.

Despite the paint spattered walls and gloomy lighting, the exhibition has avoided trading too much on the easy horror of the tale of the ressurectionists.  It instead tells a genuinely interesting story about the tension between the right to ownership of our bodies and the medical need for cadavers. Its twist is the final room, which presents the modern arguments surrounding a move to an opt-out system of organ donation.  Would this be a return to the utilitarianism of the Anatomy Act?  Once again, we are being told that the greater good should take precedence over individual consent.

Although the resurrection men are long gone, the medical profession hasn’t shaken its connection in the public mind with the ghoulish side of life.  Autopsies, mortuaries, and death certification are a source of horror and fascination to the general public.  Although the voluntary donation of bodies to medical schools is no longer vanishingly rare, it is still far from commonplace. Even organ donation is a common source of anxiety.

Despite the decline in dissection, UK medical schools need at least 1000 bodies per year.  There is still a shortfall.

Doctors, Dissection, and Resurrection Men is on display at the Museum of London from 19 October 2012 to 14 April 2013.

Isobel Weinberg is the editor, Student BMJ.