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Using the dead

Model of Dr Tulp's Anatomy Lesson, Europe, 1701-1800

Model of Dr Tulp's Anatomy Lesson, Europe, 1701-1800

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When does a person become an object? Many would argue that this takes place when a body becomes so valuable that it might be traded, sold or used as a gift. Dead bodies have always been at the heart of anatomical knowledge and practice. In many times and places the desire to acquire, dissect and preserve the dead has brought anatomists into conflict with social and religious customs. In some religious traditions, such as Christianity, making sure that the body remains a whole and undisturbed is extremely important. This was particularly important in the medieval period, as it was thought that dismemberment of the body would prevent its resurrection. Historians are still divided on the question of whether religious beliefs, especially Christian and Islamic beliefs, encouraged or discouraged anatomical practice. Yet despite unease with the actual practice of dissection, there is evidence that in medical traditions in both cultures, some form of anatomical research continued.

Getting bodies with permission of the king


As direct anatomical practice became more important, so did the acquisition of cadavers for dissection. In Europe, from the medieval period onward, a limited number of bodies were made available to surgeons. Until the 1800s dissection was normally a public as well as teaching event, held in winter, when the cold weather meant that corpses did not decompose as fast. Public dissection was sometimes held in Italy in association with the carnival. It was considered a moral and religious lesson, as well as being of medical interest.

In England, when Henry VIII united the companies of barbers and surgeons in 1540, he gave them the right to the bodies of four hanged criminals per year. These were the only corpses legally available and dissection was considered part of their punishment.

Judges rule on the use of bodies

From 1752, English judges were able to decide on the fate of the bodies of those executed for murder. With increasing numbers of crimes attracting the death sentence, the humiliation of being dissected after death was the only thing that made punishment for murder more extreme than that for theft.

Legal and illegal bodies: grave-robbing


In 1831 only 11 bodies were legally available for dissection in London - a city with over 900 students studying anatomy. So it is little wonder that the demand for bodies led to illegal grave-robbing. Even as surgeons sought to establish their credentials as respectable professionals, their desire for bodies led them into relationships with grave-robbers and body-snatchers. Some people, such as the infamous Burke and Hare, even resorted to murder in order to acquire bodies which they could then sell to anatomy schools.

Government control of dead bodies

As part of an attempt to control the trade in corpses, the 1832 Anatomy Act in England, and state acts in the USA, beginning with Massachusetts in 1831, made the bodies of unclaimed individuals available to anatomy schools. Unclaimed bodies included those of the poverty-stricken who died in workhouses - one of the many reasons why the poor avoided such places.

New surgical techniques - increased demand for body parts

In recent times new surgical techniques such as organ transplantation have increased the demand for body parts. However, cultural and religious ideas about death vary, meaning that in some countries, such as Japan, organ transplantation is relatively rare.

The global problem of an illegal trade

An illegal trade in body parts now poses a global problem, with some individuals, especially in poorer countries, giving up kidneys in order to pay debts. Many countries, including the UK, now try to make certain that consent has been obtained for the donation of organs and other body parts. At the same time, some wealthy individuals choose to have their bodies preserved using cryogenics, in the belief that in the future medicine will have ways to restore them to life.

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D Burch, Digging Up the Dead (London: Vintage, 2008)

R French, Dissection and Vivisection in the European Renaissance (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1999)

B Hayes The Anatomist (New York: Ballentine Press, 2008)

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

W Moore, The Knife Man (London: Bantam Press, 2005)

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

M Sappol, A Traffic of Dead Bodies (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002)

J Sawday, The Body Emblazoned: Dissection and the Human Body in Renaissance Culture (London: Routledge, 1995)