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Week 3: Death, Dissection and the Study of Anatomy

Lecturer: Rachel Bennett

Anatomy in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Britain conjures up conflicting images for the historian of medicine. Contrasting views of anatomical study through dissection marked the practice as both a desecration of the dead body but also a means of medical advancement for the long-term benefit of the living. In this period, practical knowledge and experience of dissecting a human body gradually became a cornerstone of medical education and was justified as a means of advancing medical and surgical training which would benefit all classes of society. However, popular, religious and legal beliefs and anxieties over the treatment of the dead body intruded into the anatomy theatre. The practice of dissection was often viewed with ambiguity and sometimes outright disdain. The ever-increasing demand for cadavers for use as part of anatomy courses in Britain’s universities and in private anatomy schools far exceeded the legal chain of supply. Therefore, grave robbing was another major source of supply for medical men but served to heap further contempt upon the practice of dissection in the public mind. The ‘Golden Age of Bodysnatching’ in the early nineteenth century witnessed an intensification of debates over the supply of bodies to the medical schools and led to the eventual passing of the 1832 Anatomy Act.


Discussion/Essay Questions
  • ‘Practical experience of dissecting a human body was an essential requirement of anatomical study in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Britain’. Discuss.
  • To what extent did popular and religious beliefs over the treatment of the dead body impact upon the supply of cadavers for anatomical demonstration in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century?
  • How was the anatomical study of the dead justified for the benefit of the living in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century?

Required Reading:

Helen MacDonald, Human Remains: Dissection and its Histories (London: Yale University Press, 2006), Chapter 1: Companions with the Dead, pp. 11-41. [extracts]

Ruth Richardson, Death, Dissection and the Destitute (First Published London: Routledge, 1988, Paperback Edition, Phoenix Press, 2001), Part I: The Body, pp. 3-48. [extracts]

William Rowley, On the Absolute Necessity of Encouraging Instead of Preventing or Embarrassing the Study of Anatomy (London: 1795). The source is available online through the Historical Texts database on the Warwick University Library Catalogue.


Further Reading:

W.F. Bynum, Science and the Practice of Medicine in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), see in particular chapter 1: Medicine in 1790.

Helen M. Dingwall, A History of Scottish Medicine (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2003), see in particular the chapter entitled ‘Medicine in Enlightenment Scotland’, pp. 108-149.

John Knott, ‘Popular Attitudes to Death and Dissection in Early Nineteenth-Century Britain: The Anatomy Act and the Poor’, Labour History, Vol. 49, (1985), pp. 1-18.

Peter Linebaugh, ‘The Tyburn Riot Against the Surgeons’, in Douglas Hay, Peter Linebaugh, John G. Rule, E.P. Thomson and Cal Winslow, Albion’s Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in Eighteenth-Century England (London: Allen Lane, 1975), pp. 65-117.

Pier Mitchell, Anatomical Dissection in Enlightenment England and Beyond (Surrey: Ashgate, 2012).

Vivian Nutton and Roy Porter (eds), The History of Medical Education in Britain (Atlanta: Editions Rodopi, 1995), see in particular Susan C. Lawrence’s chapter ‘Anatomy and Address: Creating Medical Gentlemen in Eighteenth-Century London’, pp. 199-228.

Lynda Payne, With Words and Knives: Learning Medical Dispassion in Early Modern England (Hampshire: Ashgate, 2007).

Carole Reeves (ed), A Cultural History of the Human Body in the Enlightenment (London: Bloomsbury, 2014).

Lisa Rosner, Medical Education in the Age of Improvement (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1991).

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

Sarah Tarlow, Ritual, Belief and the Dead in Early Modern Britain and Ireland (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011)