Object of the Week: Jeremy Bentham’s 184-year-old skin sitting in a box in London

| 14 September 2016

Jeremy Bentham's skin sits inside University College London, the institution he helped found

A photo of an ancient section of dissected skin against a black background
© Wellcome Images and Wellcome Library, London
The philosopher Jeremy Bentham could never be accused of hypocrisy. A firm rationalist, after his death in 1832, and according to his instructions, he was publicly dissected and displayed.

What Bentham called his ‘auto-icon’ (his skeleton, wearing his clothes, stuffed with hay, and topped with a wax head sporting his own hair) still sits in a box at University College London.

A photo of an ancient section of dissected skin against a black background
© Wellcome Images and Wellcome Library, London
His mummified head was displayed too, but became a target for pranks so is now stored. This strip of skin comes from the dissection.

The inscription reads: "Part of the skin of the late Jeremy Bentham Esq. who bequeathed his Body for anatomical purposes, and was dissected, July 1832."

A photo of an illustration of a man lying on a slab
© Science Museum, London
Henry Solomon Wellcome (1853-1936) collected the wedge-shaped piece of skin. It's not clear how it came into Wellcome's collection, but a journal, Notes and Queries, records two sightings of it: in 1856, J Doran remembered seeing a portion of Bentham's skin in the museum of the Philosophical Institution at Reading. In 1865, another contributor, WCJ, noted a portion of Bentham's skin in the possession of Dr Henry Duncan Littlejohn in Edinburgh.

The artefact was, however, definitely on display at the British Museum exhibition Medicine Man: the Forgotten Museum of Henry Wellcome.

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