Museum of London welcomes Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men

By Ben Miller | 17 October 2012
A photo of a cross section of a skull featuring eyes and teeth against a black surface
A fine example of a wax anatomical head from the Museum of London's new exhibition© Science Museum, Science and Society Picture Library
Exhibition Preview: Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men, Museum of London, London, October 19 2012 – April 14 2013

In a compelling year of exhibitions on the way human remains were once used, the most detailed one could be yet to come. The Grant Museum has already showed us bones from the teaching hospital it once housed, and the Royal College of Physicians’ current display, Curious Anatomys, has caused a stir by revisiting the origins of dissection.

But just when you thought the revelations might be relenting, Museum of London Archaeology is about to send a shiver down the spine again. In 2006, the diggers set in on a burial ground at the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel and unearthed a “confusing mix” of bones.

Sawn-off shoulders and vertebrae punctured by pins lay alongside animal skeletons and amputated limbs. The evidence suggested autopsies, anatomical dissection and finds from the notorious trade in dead bodies around the time of the 1832 Anatomy Act, when the state received the right to take unidentified bodies without consent.

A black and white image of a 19th century gent in a suit and waistcoat
19th century surgeon James Luke© The Royal London Hospital Archives
Of the stories arising from the period, the cases of the “unclaimed” deceased sound the saddest: the poorest members of society often died without family members knowing or being around to grieve for them. Often the relatives left behind were too poor to bury them.

Conversely, resurrectionists found a lucrative business in trading – one of the figures portrayed by the display, William Millard, started out studying bodies as a popular teacher. He ultimately died in prison after being convicted of trying to steal a corpse from the site, leaving his wife to issue pamphlets in a bid to clear his posthumous name.

The ethical implications of the Act are a starting point for some soul-searching, but there’s likely to be less delicacy in the human and animal remains, anatomical models and drawings and practices from an era when supply could never meet anatomical demand.

The museum’s in-depth collection should offer new perspectives rather than the final word.

More pictures:

A photo of an ancient saw for amputating limbs poised on a reflective surface
This amputation saw was reputedly the property of the English surgeon, George 'Graveyard' Walker© Science Museum, Science and Society Picture Library
A photo of an old anatomical board made of punctuated wood on dark brown legs
Side view of a dissecting table© Science Museum, Science and Society Picture Library
An image of a scientific drawing of a section of the human body in anatomical detail
The Superficial Muscles of the Thorax and the Axilla (1876)© Wellcome Library
More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
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