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After a person dies, the body changes. The first stage is called rigor mortis, characterised by a stiffening of the muscles. This passes within 36 to 72 hours. The body also begins to decompose, with associated bloating and colour changes. This is why anatomists were so keen to get fresh bodies for dissection.

By the 1700s bodies were so valuable to anatomists that they were willing to go to great, often illegal, lengths to secure them. While trying to establish themselves as respectable professionals, at the same time they fostered relationships with body-snatchers and grave-robbers to ensure that they and their students had access to enough cadavers for their work. William Hunter, the famous London obstetrician, obtained students for his anatomical school by promising each their own cadaver. However, he left the dirty work of procuring them to his brother, John Hunter.

Where did the bodies come from? In the late 1800s there was a trend for scientists and progressive individuals from the upper classes to have their bodies autopsied. However, overwhelmingly it was the destitute and powerless whose bodies were dissected. Bodies were stolen after death, or in the infamous case of Burke and Hare, individuals were murdered for their bodies.

In the United States, grave-robbers in the south regularly transported the bodies of enslaved workers to northern medical schools. Slaveholders sometimes sold or donated the bodies of their enslaved workers to medical schools, making the threat of dissection a weapon of control and coercion. The 1832 Anatomy Act in England, and state acts in the USA (beginning with Massachusetts in 1831) made unclaimed bodies from hospitals or workhouses available to anatomy schools.

Related Themes and Topics


H MacDonald, Human Remains: Dissection and its Histories (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2005)

R Richardson, Death, Dissection and the Destitute (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001)



A branch of medicine dealing with the care of women. This care occurs during pregnancy, childbirth, and the period of recovery from childbirth.