Today I visited the new exhibition inaugurated last week at the Museum of London, ‘Doctors, dissection and resurrection men’. The exhibition has already received remarkable reviews from the Guardian, the Economist and the Times, among others, and I must say I agree with the Economist in defining it “absorbing” and “grisly”. For the first time, we have “some hard evidence” of the “bodysnatching epidemic”, which began around 1810 in response to burgeoning scientific demand. This hard evidence is the excavation, in 2006, of long-forgotten graveyard of sawed, bored, and otherwise dissected skeletons on the site of the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel. The excavation revealed some 262 burials. In the confusing mix of bones was extensive evidence of dissection, autopsy and amputation, bones wired for teaching, and animals dissected for comparative anatomy. The bones date from a key period – that of the Anatomy Act of 1832 – the discovery is one of the most significant in the UK, offering fresh insight into early 19th century dissection and the trade in dead bodies. The Anatomy Act was promulgated (not without controversy, as the exhibition shows) in reaction to public fear of the illegal trade in corpses, and allowed hospital to use unclaimed bodies in anatomy lessons, by utilising the bodies of former patients. The public fear reached its peak with the infamous case in 1831 of the “Italian boy”, a 14 yo who was murdered in order for its body to be sold, which was elegantly narrated by Sarah Wise here. One Stop Arts (the online guide to London’s arts scene) also praised highly the exhibition -which will be open until April 14, 2013 – and defined it “splendidly creepy” but also “brilliantly informative”.
The exhibition follows up the story of corpses needed for anatomy until the present: the Anatomy Act was replaced only in 2004 with the Human Tissue Act, after a series of scandals over medical use of body parts (even of children) without consent.
As noted by the Economist, even today, demand (for bodies) still exceeds supply.
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