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Last Updated: Monday, 12 December 2005, 00:33 GMT
The body snatchers' legacy to medicine
By Jane Elliott
BBC News health reporter

One might struggle to see the ethical side of bodysnatching, that grisly activity epitomised by Burke and Hare. But, according to a senior curator at the Royal College of Surgeons, some of the greatest discoveries in medical history might not have been possible without it.

Copyright of the Royal College of Surgeons
'The Resurrectionists' by Thomas Rowlandson

Few crimes can make the flesh crawl like body snatching, but it was prevalent in the 18th Century.

The image of freshly raided graves scandalised the public, but few of the perpetrators and procurers were caught and, when they were, the punishments were trivial.

Simon Chaplin, senior curator of the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons, London, has new insights into this grisly conundrum.

In a recent speech, he pointed out that some of the great discoveries of medical history took place in the 18th Century - the small pox vaccine, advances in obstetrics, dental surgery and the treatment and detection of venereal disease.


But the era was also characterised by the body snatchers, seedy underworld characters who supplied the hidden corpses needed for dissection to perfect the anatomical skills of surgeons.

Mr Chaplin said people should put the crime into its historic context.

"Why was this gruesome trade tolerated? How did the anatomists persuade their peers to condone, rather than condemn, the noisome business of dissection?"

The most infamous had their skeletons preserved, hung in niches round the hall to serve as permanent moral lessons to the crowds who thronged the gallery
Simon Chaplin

To answer this, he says, it is vital to remember that during the 18th Century London was starting to blossom as a city, its population was burgeoning, but as this happened so grew the need for qualified surgeons to care for the population.

Unlike the other medical cities of Edinburgh, Leiden and Paris, London had no medical university and all the responsibility for training young surgeons fell solely on the shoulders of a relic of the mediaeval city guilds - the Company of Barber Surgeons.

They alone had the rights to the 'legal' corpses - the bodies of executed felons - and offered little practical help to anatomists.

Even after the creation of a separate Surgeon's Company in 1745, what anatomy demonstrations there were irregular and poorly attended by those who needed to see them.

Often they offered little more than the chance for ghoulish members of the public who wanted to see the innards of London's most notorious criminals.

Copyright of the Royal College of Surgeons
Portrait of John Hunter by Sir Joshua Reynolds

"The most infamous had their skeletons preserved, and were hung in niches round the hall to serve as permanent moral lessons to the crowds who thronged the gallery," said Mr Chaplin.

Centuries before the works of Gunter Van Hagens, whose work with human corpses and his public autopsies, shocked the nation, Mr Chaplin said there were a series of grisly exhibitions in the capital.

"One of the least salubrious was Benjamin Rackstrow's museum in Fleet Street, which included waxwork 'anatomical Venuses' and titillating displays of preserved organs."

But these were not the thing for young surgeons wanting to advance their anatomical skills.


A variety of private schools did offer the chance to learn medical skills from surgery to midwifery - but no student could progress unless they were given the chance to study human anatomy in close-up detail.

This is where the snatchers were invaluable.

"The private teachers were not entitled to the bodies of criminals from the gallows," said Mr Chaplin.

"Instead they had to resort to other means to secure a supply of fresh corpses for their lessons.

"This grim traffic was the preserve of the grave-robbers who would deliver their newly exhumed goods under the cover of darkness."

Copyright of the Royal College of Surgeons
'The Dissecting Room' by Thomas Rowlandson

And for the most part, despite public criticism, the authorities, said Mr Chaplin, turned a blind eye.

When one surgeon, Andrew Marshall, was caught red-handed with a hamper containing the bodies of two children, he received no sanction.

Another, Thomas Young, was fined just 10 when he was found in possession of a recently deceased inmate from a workhouse.

Mr Chaplin feels the reason for such a lenient approach lies in the way the surgeons were quick to apply their skills to the treatment of the sick.

"The key attribute of the anatomist - the 'steady hand' and curious eye' were extolled, turning anatomical study from an unsavoury niche discipline into the cornerstone of scientific medicine.

"This was greatly helped by not only their treatment of the sick, but also the effort they put into being open about the benefits of their work, such as the museums which they opened to non-medical visitors as well."

Anatomists like William Hunter, famed for his advances in obstetrics, and his brother John Hunter, created museums to display anatomical preparations.

John Hunter, 3,000 of whose pieces are housed in the Hunterian museum in the Royal College of Surgeons, did much research into dental anatomy; the anatomy of venereal disease and work on gunshot wounds including disproving the theory that gun powder was poisonous.

"Even King George III and Queen Charlotte were moved to commission a series of preparations from John Hunter, to be used for teaching the children of the Royal Family the art of anatomy," said Mr Chaplin.

The Hunterian Museum, which is situated in 35-43 Lincoln's Inn Fields, is open to the public from 1000 -1700 Tuesdays to Saturdays and admission is free.

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