Doctors, dissection and resurrection men

In Georgian Britain, the growing demand for corpses for medical study and research prompted shadowy practices, which are explored in the exhibition Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men, currently showing at the Museum of London.  

During the 18th and early 19th century, surgery was brutal. Without anaesthesia, patients faced painful and invasive operations, numbed only by alcohol or laudanum, and held down on the operating table by the surgeon’s assistants, surrounded by a room full of curious doctors and students. Going under the knife was a gamble – many surgeons had little understanding of the most effective treatment and, even if the patient survived the operation, they were at high risk of infection and death from contaminated implements.  

While some doctors clung to the classical teachings of ancient Greek and Roman physicians, more radical doctors had started to recognise that they needed a more detailed understanding of the inner workings of the body to stand any chance of treating it successfully. Anatomy schools started to sprout up around Britain and students flocked to those that offered them the opportunity to experience dissection first hand. This required a steady supply of corpses for students to study both healthy and diseased anatomy before putrefaction took hold.  

Enter the resurrection men

The demand for fresh bodies far outstripped legal availability – each of the elite guilds of surgeons and physicians was allowed just four to six executed criminals every year for public dissection. But plenty of dead bodies were available illegally. The gallows on hanging day would have felt like a market place as relatives jostled with anatomists and officials of the guilds to gain possession of the bodies. And, as the demand and price of bodies escalated in the mid-1700s, grave-robbing became a lucrative industry. One body could provide a month’s wages. Professional bodysnatchers, known as the “resurrection men”, scoured burial grounds at night for freshly dug graves, quite often accompanied by enthusiastic medical students.  

Some people were so scared of being dissected after death, which they believed would render them incomplete and unable to enter heaven, that they invested in special coffins that couldn’t be opened.  

Burial sites across London

With most bodies supplied by resurrection men, the four major hospitals with dissection classes and private anatomy schools needed burial grounds within easy reach. According to a huge map of London in the exhibition, St Bartholomew’s Hospital stood shoulder to shoulder with the Fortune of War pub, a hangout for resurrection men, and 33 Hosier Lane, where criminals’ bodies were taken for dissection. Many of the anatomy schools were clustered around Broad Street in Soho, close to the burial grounds at St Paul’s, St Giles in the Fields, and St George’s Hanover Square.  

In fact, the exhibition was prompted by a burial site found at the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel. When the site was excavated in 2006, archaeologists found skeletons with post-mortem cuts and dissection, indicating that the hospital had been directly supplying its dissecting room with bodies for studying and teaching anatomy.  

Burking

The term ‘burking’ – meaning to suffocate someone and leave the body intact and suitable for dissection – was coined by the well known story of William Burke and William Hare, who murdered 16 people in Edinburgh in the late 1820s and sold the bodies to Dr Robert Knox for use in surgical research. London had its very own Burke and Hare: in 1831, John Bishop, Thomas Williams and James May lured a 14-year-old boy to Nova Scotia Gardens where they drowned him with the intent to sell his body. They were caught out when King’s School of Anatomy suspected that the body hadn’t been buried and alerted the police. While grave-robbing was largely overlooked as a criminal offence, murder was not. May was spared but Bishop and Williams were convicted of murder at the Old Bailey, hanged and, in an ironic twist, sold to anatomy schools in London.  

The end of bodysnatching

Bodies for dissection had now become so valuable that the greedy and the desperate were willing to commit murder. The Government had to take action – the Anatomy Act 1832 gave doctors and students legal access to unclaimed bodies from prisons or workhouses for dissection, and marked the beginning of the end for resurrection men. The Act assumed that unless a dying patient had stated otherwise, they consented to being dissected.  

Who owns your body?

The Anatomy Act 1832 was not repealed until the Human Tissue Act 2004, which made it clear that personal consent was needed for body and organ donation. This change was sparked by a public inquiry in 1999 that showed NHS hospitals had retained the organs of dead patients, including those of children, without consent.  

Find out more

The exhibition Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men is on at the Museum of London until 14 April 2013.  

If you can’t get to the exhibition, you can still use the Museum’s virtual study zone to explore the excavations at the Royal London Hospital, stories of dissection and bodysnatching in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the medical ethics of dissection.  

You can also read more about this period through the eyes of John Hunter in The knife man: blood body-snatching and the birth of modern surgery by Wendy Moore. Hunter was a pioneering surgeon in the mid-to-late 1800s and was deeply entangled in the criminal underworld of Georgian London to source the corpses he needed for study and teaching.