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"Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men" exhibition opens at the Museum of London
The Superficial Muscles of the Thorax and the Axilla 1876.® Wellcome Library.

LONDON.- Surgery is a dangerous practice, requiring detailed knowledge of human anatomy. The best tool for learning has always been a real body. But finding enough ‘subjects’ for dissection has never been easy. In the early 19th century, a huge demand for fresh bodies fuelled the gruesome practice of body snatching. Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men explores the murky world of the resurrection men and the ambitious surgeon-anatomist they supplied with fresh corpses.

At the heart of the exhibition is an excavation undertaken in 2006 by Museum of London Archaeology which uncovered a forgotten burial ground, in use between 1825¬ and 1841, at the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel. What they found was both extraordinary and unexpected.

The excavation revealed some 262 burials, some containing just one person, but many containing a confusing mix of bones with extensive evidence of dissection, autopsy, amputation, bones wired for teaching, and animals dissected for comparative anatomy. It soon became clear that for a period of the 19th century the hospital bypassed the body snatchers and used their unclaimed deceased patients for dissection practice.

Jelena Bekvalac, Curator of Human Osteology at the Museum of London said: ‘By drawing together the extraordinary archaeological discoveries from 2006 and specialist research about London’s body-snatching trade in the early 19th century, we have been able to shine a light on a fascinating and critical period in the capital’s history.

For the first time, we will display the human remains from the excavation and reveal their story – lost for so long and yet so important, providing a poignant and sombre reminder of a real truth – that with medical advancement, there is rarely no human cost’

Sharon Ament, Director of the Museum of London said: ‘Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men goes to the heart of what the Museum of London does – telling the fascinating story of the capital, the gory and the glory, revealing what historical events mean for present day London.

The legacy of this time is to be found in every anatomical reference book and surgical training course today. The story is told through fascinating displays mixing never before seen human remains with exquisite illustrations, objects and multimedia interpretation.’

The exhibition explores:

Demand and supply In the early 19th century aspiring surgeons came to London to learn their trade creating a huge demand for bodies. Well-trained surgeons were essential to the capital, then the most populated city in the world. Yet the only legal source of bodies for dissection were executed criminals, and the gallows simply couldn’t provide the numbers of cadavers required. This forced respectable surgeons into unsavoury agreements with resurrection men who ‘resurrected’ newly-buried bodies from the city’s graveyards to sell to medical and anatomy schools.

Fear Many of London’s burial grounds were in an appalling condition, stuffed far beyond capacity – the oozing soil was easy to rob. The poor, unable to afford protection in death, were particularly vulnerable to the body snatchers, the most successful of which took a very business-like approach to their trade. Public fears about body snatching were complex. Christian beliefs about life after death added to the terror of being cut into pieces by the surgeons. Being sold for dissection was a shameful fate.

Surgeons and surgery Surgery in this period was brutal, agonising and dirty. Surgeons needed knowledge and speed, it was in everyone’s interests that surgeons improved their skills by practising on dead bodies. Dissection also helped surgeons understand the structure and purpose of organs and develop their knowledge about disease. Many surgeons became known as great anatomists, devoting their careers to describing and understanding the human body. Although their dealings with the resurrection men tainted their reputations, surgeons had little choice if they were to gain the skills to save lives.

Study of anatomy Instead of merely watching a demonstration of dissection, the new ‘Paris method’ required every student to have his own body to dissect. The private anatomy schools established in London in the mid-18th century started to use this method, closely followed by the hospital medical schools. The London was one of the first hospitals to adopt this style of dissection, in 1785, under Head Surgeon William Blizard. Models, casts and preserved specimens meant teaching could continue in the summer and when fresh bodies were not available. However they were no substitute for the real thing.

Law When the horrific revelation of the Bishops, Williams and May case (London’s Burke and Hare) was revealed, public fears peaked. Voluntary body donation seemed unlikely to meet surgeons’ needs. Equally no one wanted to be operated on by a bad surgeon. In 1832, the controversial Anatomy Act ruled that bodies ‘unclaimed’ or ‘friendless’ could be given up for dissection. Again, it was clear that the burden would fall on the poor. The Bill met strong opposition in Parliament, and while many MPs supported the surgeons’ call for cheaper training, and thought that the poor would ultimately benefit. In 1832 Parliament passed the Anatomy Act.

After the Anatomy Act The Anatomy Act was unpopular and proved difficult to enforce. Parishes refused to hand over bodies from their workhouses, officials made private deals with local hospitals for their own personal gain. Mistakes with bodies could be blamed on ‘clerical errors’. However, the Act was successful in putting the resurrection men out of business. It is estimated that 57,000 corpses were supplied during the first 100 years of the Act’s operation. 99.5% were from workhouses, asylums and hospitals, showing that the burden was indeed borne by the poorest. The Act left a long legacy of fear – that falling into poverty would mean the State claiming your body after death.

Body donation was rare until after World War ll. Voluntary donations gradually increased, but the 1832 Act remained in force until the Human Tissue Act of 2004. This new legislation was prompted by a scandal about the retention of children’s body parts at Alder Hey and other hospitals between 1988 and 1995.

Key highlight include:

• Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827) satirical prints. While surgeons and physicians were generally well-respected members of society they could also be figures of fun. Rowlandson’s lively prints play on the perception that some surgeons enjoyed an unnatural interest in the human form or were little more than doddering fools.

• The work of Joseph Towne, 19th century wax work modeller extraordinaire. When he was 16, Joseph Towne created a wooden model of a skeleton, despite never having seen one. He took it to Sir Astley Cooper at Guy’s Hospital, who confirmed it to be accurate. Towne was then employed to create models exclusively for Guy’s and worked there for 53 years. The exhibition features his wooden skeleton and his outstandingly detailed wax models showing internal structures, including a head, created for the Great Exhibition in 1851, a human torso, and unerringly life-like diseased body parts.

• James Legg plaster cast by sculptor Thomas Bank and artists Benjamin West and Richard Crossway, 1801. This trio of artists set out to show that most depictions of the crucifixion were anatomically incorrect so they acquired the body of James Legg, who had been hanged for murder. James was taken from the gallows and nailed into position before being taken to an anatomy school where it was flayed to remove all skin. It was then cast in plaster.

• Tools of the trade. The exhibition features various instruments used for the dangerous business of 19th century surgery. While beautiful objects in their own right, they nonetheless serve as a stern reminder of the risks of surgery in this period. There was no anaesthetic or antiseptic, so procedures were limited. Even if an operation went well, the patient could die from shock, loss of blood or infection.

• Body Beyond Death. In collaboration with young people from east London and Quiet Voice productions, the film, Body Beyond Death, will explores the different social, cultural and religious experiences that inform how we feel about what happens to our bodies after death.

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