Bring Out Yer Dead: Why Edinburgh’s “Public” Dissections are Important

A Lecture at the Hunterian Anatomy School
A Lecture at the Hunterian Anatomy School

Last month, word began to spread that Edinburgh University will be offering anatomy lessons. This does not sound all that unusual: it’s one of the oldest and most prestigious medical schools in the world, of course the study of anatomy should be at the forefront of the curriculum. What makes this exciting, however, is that the university is offering anatomy lessons using real cadavers, and the lessons will be open to the public. The first mention I saw of this boasted that this is the “First public anatomy lectures planned in the UK since Burke and Hare,” referring to the infamous 1828 case in which William Burke and William Hare delivered over a dozen bodies through the back door of Dr. Robert Knox’s dissection theater for use in teaching anatomy, bodies that were killed for that very purpose (and for the meager sum it paid). These double Williams familiarized the public with terms like “body-snatchers” (despite the fact that they did not body-snatch—the practice of exhuming newly-buried bodies for the same purpose) and “Burking” (the method by which they killed—kneeling on the victim’s chest and neck in order to suffocate them). I’ve written about them a bit before in a previous post in reference to Lisa Rosner’s work, so I won’t say more about them here. In fact, Burke and Hare were not the last to contribute to public anatomy; not only was Burke himself publicly dissected in 1829, but the last public anatomy demonstration using corpse was performed in 1832, on the body of murderer Elizabeth Ross, just prior to the passage of the Anatomy Act (MacDonald 1).

Elizabeth Ross, 1832
Elizabeth Ross, drawn by William Clift, 1832

Responses to Edinburgh’s announcement that it would offer six lectures on various parts of the body—each limited to 25 attendees and costing £100—have ranged from academic excitement (I include myself in this—don’t worry, I have “registered my interest” and will keep you updated) to academic trepidation. Carla Valentine, a member of the Order of the Good Death, wrote a response to the above-mentioned article expressing concern that sensationalizing these anatomy lessons by comparing them to such fearful cultural figures such as Burke and Hare perpetuates negative (and dangerous) perceptions of death as unsavory and taboo. In other words, the anatomy lectures themselves present death positively; the way they’re talked about does not. Valentine refers to medical attitudes leading up to the events of Burke and Hare that may have been more death-positive than our own: “If we go back to the heyday of medical museums and public dissections in the 18th century, there was a zeitgeist of enlightenment, and learning anatomy was considered an agreeable hobby.”

Death in the Dissecting Room, by Thomas Rowlandson
Death in the Dissecting Room, by Thomas Rowlandson

In the eighteenth century, physicians had little choice but to learn from dissecting newly-dead bodies, and even this method left certain aspects of medicine in the dark. For example, physicians had a thorough knowledge of human anatomy—where the parts of the body were located and their relationship to one another—but not of physiology—how these parts actually functioned—because they could not observe them in action without causing fatal injury to the living body. All the same, the empirical evidence offered by dissecting the body offered a vast improvement over previous methods of learning through books or straight lectures alone. As such, bodies were at a premium, two laws both restricting and allowing physicians to dissect certain bodies in certain situations: the Murder Act of 1752 and the Anatomy Act of 1832 which gave anatomists rights to dissect the bodies of executed murders and unclaimed unfortunates, respectively. Knox famously sidestepped these laws by accepting bodies attained through alternative methods. Though the sight of death was certainly more common in eighteenth and nineteenth century Edinburgh, it was a certain discomfort with any alteration of the corpse that might violate it or jeopardize the soul’s passage to Heaven that made bodies so difficult to procure. This anxiety and discomfort has only worsened with Modernity.

Dr. Robert Knox
Dr. Robert Knox

Though his methods were unarguably questionable, Knox succeeded in placing anatomy in the public eye, regularizing the sight of the dead in more than just in the contexts of violent public execution or objective medical education. He performed for large lecture halls, typically holding 300-500 audience members looking to satisfy curiosities of all breeds: anyone who could pay the price of a ticket was welcome to attend (Bates 61). Whereas the other anatomists worried about the theater luring their students away from their demonstrations, Knox brought the theater into the lecture space, referred to, after all, as the anatomical theatre. He not only taught medical anatomy but also brought in poetry, literary references, Shakespeare, making jokes throughout—not at all the seriousness with which one would expect the dearly deceased to be treated (Bates 61-62). To our modern sensibilities, such behavior—not even taking into account the infamous murders the acquisition of such bodies—may seem crass and disrespectful, and I will not argue whether or not it is. What has remained in the popular imagination of Knox and those like him does exactly what Valentine alludes to when she claims that associating these new public lectures with Knox’s is “damaging to anatomy.” Sure enough scandal associated with body-snatching or any other unethical method of procuring the dead did (and continues to do) damage to positive ways in which the dead can be viewed. But I want to stand up for what Knox and his predecessors did in terms of what has not entered into the popular imagination—the normalization of death and dead bodies—and why comparing Edinburgh’s new anatomical lectures to his performances of spectacle is inaccurate, but not for just reasons that redeem this big step Edinburgh is taking. We still shroud this treatment of the dead by restricting viewership to such a small number, making it only slightly more public (and perhaps antiquarian) than what occurs in med school. We don’t celebrate the body and reintroduce it into a show of life as Knox did, with his poetry and lively performances that brought the dead closer to the living and the living closer to death than perhaps was evident except to those who realized this performance had no curtain, and its star performer could one day be themselves.

Knox performing a dissection for an audience
Knox performing a dissection for an audience

Works Cited
Bates, A. W. The Anatomy of Robert Knox: Murder, Mad Science and Medical Regulation in Nineteenth-Century Edinburgh. Portland, OR: Sussex Academic Press, 2010.

Cramb, Auslan. “First public anatomy lectures planned in the UK since Burke and Hare.” The Telegraph. 18 March, 2015. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/11480902/First-public-anatomy- lectures-planned-in-the-UK-since-Burke-and-Hare.html

MacDonald, Helen. Human Remains: Dissection and its Histories. London: Yale University Press, 2006.

Valentine, Carla. “Making dissections of cadavers public helps us embrace life, as well as death.” The Guardian. 31 March, 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/mar/31/public-dissection-of-cadavers- about-time-embrace-death