A scene in pencil or charcoal. A young man attempts to keep closed a door being pushed open by a hoard of people. Those inside the room seem to be gathered around something (presumably a cadaver)

Slicing and dicing – how we messed up in the history of dissection

Dissection is an important part of every doctor’s education. It’s unimaginable to go through med school without cutting open a few kindly donated corpses – because how else to observe the inner workings of the human body before you go about fixing it?

Dissection has yielded countless discoveries about how we work and, on an individual level, helps aspiring doctors understand what they are learning to cure.

The history of this vital practice in the Western world, however, is long, and bloodier than you might imagine.

Outlawed in both ancient Greece and Rome, human dissection remained taboo for over a thousand years, leading to widely-held beliefs about human physics being derived through extrapolation from e.g. animal dissections. It was rediscovered as a powerful tool for research and education during the 14th century and found its way into mainstream doctoral studies around the 16th century – in no small part due to the discoveries of Andreas Vesalius.

While nowadays, giving up your body for the advancement of science is often considered an honor, this was not always the case! For instance, many Christians believed that bodies disfigured by a necropsy could not be revived later. So, how does one get the necessary specimens without a regulated supply of donor bodies?

The Doctor’s Riot

In New York, this led to bloody uprisings – like the 1788 Doctor’s riot.

A scene in pencil or charcoal. A young man attempts to keep closed a door being pushed open by a hoard of people. Those inside the room seem to be gathered around something (presumably a cadaver)
An Interrupted Dissection by William Allen Rogers, 1788.

At the time, there was only one medical school in the entire country. There were not a lot of doctors in North America, and regulation of corpse supplies for dissection was not at the front of lawmakers’ minds.

To get the specimen they needed, they regularly dug up bodies from cemeteries outside the city. As the people buried there were primarily Black slaves, outcries of the living protesting the mutilation of their kith and kin mostly went unheard. However, when the theft of a white woman’s corpse was reported, the public began to take notice.

Things came to a head when, according to the most popular account, some children playing on the streets came across a student performing a dissection. One of the boys came closer – and the student, in an early and especially distasteful version of a “yo mama” joke, waved a dead woman’s arm at him and informed the child that it belonged to his mother.

In a series of unfortunate circumstances, the boy’s mother had recently died and when his father dug up the grave, they found that her corpse had, indeed, disappeared.

Understandably incensed, a mob gathered, entered the autopsy rooms, and destroyed all the equipment and corpses they could find. About 5000 rioters scoured the city in search of the offending doctors, resulting in a stand-off with the militia and an estimated 20 dead.

The aftermath

In response, the government introduced anatomy acts that allowed the bodies of executed criminals to be used for dissection.

Similar legislation was introduced in most of Europe – but this didn’t solve the problem in either continent, as the gallows were not the most reliable source of bodies. The supply simply could not meet the demand.

While most European countries soon allowed unclaimed bodies, suicide victims and asylum residents to be used as well, England did not take this step.

There, a bit of a war broke out between students, aiming to study anatomy (reasonable), and the general public not wanting their bodies to be robbed (also entirely reasonable).

Reinforced or spiked coffins, watchmen guarding the graveyards… most doctors opted to pay for bodies delivered to them, with the advantage of plausible deniability.  They did pay a pretty penny, especially for undamaged bodies.

The Resurrection Men

A new profession was born. The self-proclaimed “resurrection men” liberated the dead from their graves – to the great dismay of the common man.

It did not take long, however, for some professionals to realise that the quickest way to acquire an undamaged corpse is to DIY.

In 1828, William Burke and William Hare killed and sold the corpses of 16 people, using a method that gained notoriety: they inebriated and strangled their victims to render the cause of death unrecognizable. They were caught, convicted, and one of them was hung and – in a rather ironic turn of events – dissected. However, individual evildoers and entire gangs continued to emulate their methods.

The painting depicts a man strangling a woman as two women seem to shout in distress. Another man occupied a chair in the room.
Burke murdering Margery Campbell. Image by Robert Seymour obtained from Wikimedia Commons.

The panic these events incited were the cause for the Warburton Anatomy Act of 1832, which prohibited the usage of executed criminals and instead not only allowed for unclaimed bodies to be utilised, but also instituted a body donation system.

This revolutionary concept soon made its way through the rest of Europe – and this regulated, cheap source of bodies finally laid to rest the practice of “resurrection”.

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Author: Laura Volle

Editor: Inika Prasad

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