Saturday, 5 January 2013

Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men

Verdict: Go see it
When: 19 October - 14 April 2013

Wax anatomical model of female human head showing internal structure of skull, German(?), 19th century. Image courtesy Museum of London

There was never any doubt whether I'd be intrigued by this exhibition, after all I did spend much of my second and third year at university dissecting human cadavers. Even today, recounting stories of my dissection days merits askew looks and some revulsion from others at the thought of taking apart another human being.

This exhibition does an excellent job of highlighting how much more controversial it was back in the early 1800s. Religious superstition was prevalent and the commonly held belief was that your buried self ascended to heaven so dissecting dead bodies was on a par with mutilating a living person. Novels such as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein also had people concerned that doctors would be able to re-animate the dead. 

Yet at the same time medicine was advancing, and it needed to. This was a time when broken bones were treated with an amputation without anaesthetic followed by cauterising the wound - the pain must have been unimaginable. So doctors and medical students needed dead bodies to practice on but they were in short supply. Nobody would even consider donating their bodies and the only legitimate source of cadavers were from executed criminals.

To meet this growing demand an illicit trade in body snatching started up and these so-called 'resurrection men' would dig up bodies and deliver them to hospitals and private medical schools. The doctors would have known they were not legally sourced but they chose to turn a blind eye - perhaps convincing themselves that practising on these bodies would heal future patients and so this was all for the greater good.

All of this information and more can be found in this exhibition and it's remarkable the lengths that people would go to to prevent these grave robbers from taking their loved ones after they'd passed. There is an iron coffin from the period that was impregnable to attack by crowbar and a bear trap that would've been left in a graveyard for unsuspecting thieves.

But the depravity didn't stop there as some criminals went even further, resorting to murder and then passing the bodies over to doctors as having died of natural causes. The most infamous pair were Burke and Hare but there's also a video looking at three other criminals who murdered a boy and tried to pass him off as a disinterred corpse. But the fresh nature of the body led doctors to raise the alarm and they were arrested. The final irony being they were executed and therefore their bodies were used in dissections. The video itself is very much over the top with a cockney Ray Winstone-esque narrator who is more comedic than threatening.

It was only in 1832 that a law was passed that any unclaimed body could be used for dissections. It was a tough battle to get this law through as opponents argued it would unjustly single out the poor but proponents countering that the medical knowledge would help the poor who were in greater need of medical treatment. After the law came in it led to the closure of the private medical schools and also the end of the dark era of resurrection men. 

This exhibition is full of interesting facts about how dissection took place in the past even down to the fact that preserving bodies was nigh impossible at the time so dissections could only take place during the winter months. Yet despite primitive medicine being practised the wax and bone models used by medical students of the time are impeccably detailed (as seen above).

Even the decor fits in with the grisly past with paint splattered on the walls to look like dried blood and blood-red plastic curtains dividing sections of the exhibition.

We then move on to more recent discoveries. In 2006, excavations at the Royal London hospital produced the remains of several persons used for dissections, this is the event that triggered this exhibition. A room is dedicated to this finding but it's not as fascinating as the previous rooms.

The display ends brilliantly leaving visitors mulling over some philosophical questions. There's a video about whether people would donate their organs to save others and there's still a lot of stigma attached to this with people wanting to be buried 'whole' and one person believing an urban legend that doctors are less likely to resuscitate an organ donor. It even touches on whether the UK should have an opt-out rule so that everyone is an organ donor unless they explicitly opt-out.

The final thought I was left with was, as donated bodies for dissection are still hard to find, should I feel some guilt for having dissected two bodies (albeit shared with others) and not used that learning in my current career?

This exhibition is intriguing, entertaining and thought-provoking. An excellent insight into a grisly past and well worth the £9 admission fee.

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