They tell us it was necessary for the purposes of science. Science! Why, who is science for? Not for poor people. Then if it be necessary for the purposes of science, let them have the bodies of the rich, for whose benefit science is cultivated.
William Cobbett (1763-1835)
Since I’ve made it my mission to graduate from Harvard without taking Ec 10, I don’t know much about economics. What little I do know can be summed up in three words: supply and demand. When the supply of a commodity can’t meet the demand for it, prices skyrocket, and competition heats up. Capitalism rewards creativity, and finding an innovative way out of a supply bottleneck can be incredibly lucrative.
Case in point: Imagine you are a medical student. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to understand the human body. For centuries, you would do this by reading the works of Galen in a dead language. By the eighteenth century, however, people like John Hunter were beginning to point out that there might be a better way. At the time, physicians were (like today) among the upper crust of society, while barber-surgeons were mere manual laborers. You read that right: you would get your leg amputated by the same person who cut your hair. In the hierarchy of manual labor, barber-surgeons were ranked seventh; milliners were at the top. Physicians would use their book-learning to diagnose diseases, often without actually touching their patients, and would select a treatment (such as blood-letting) to be performed by a barber-surgeon, or a drug (like an herbal blend) to be prepared by an apothecary. People like Hunter, however, thought that fluency in Ancient Greek might be a less important item in a good doctor’s toolkit than, say, knowledge of the circulatory system. He left Scotland to help run his older brother William’s cutting-edge anatomy school in London. Together, the Hunters helped bring anatomy to the forefront of medicine, through both research and education.
Now, let’s say that you are not just any medical student; you are one of William Hunter’s medical students. You have chosen Hunter’s anatomy school for a very specific reason. Throughout most of Europe, anatomy schools consisted mostly of lectures, with demonstrations by the professors, and very little hands-on laboratory-style work for the students. Hunter’s anatomy school was different. He promised to provide every single student with a hands-on experience, every day of the term. Specifically, Hunter guaranteed each student his very own cadaver.
This is where the economics comes in. Thanks to the increasing importance of anatomy moving into the early nineteenth century, corpses have become a hot commodity – demand is high, and only getting higher. Unfortunately, the only bodies legally designated for dissection are those of executed murderers. The idea of being dissected was so horrifying to pre-Victorian sensibilities that it was meant as an extra punishment for murder on top of the mere execution meted out for less awful crimes. There was a lot of violence in nineteenth-century London, but from a surgeon’s viewpoint, it was not nearly enough. Public hangings turned into mosh pits; the moment the rope tautened, mobs would rush forward to grab it. Relatives and friends of the condemned would jump up and grab onto the feet in order to pull the body down and try to snap the neck, hoping for a quick death instead of slow, painful suffocation. Meanwhile, representatives of competing medical schools literally elbowed each other out of the way in the race to cut the corpse down and drag the loot back to the anatomy theatre. Fistfights often erupted when there were not enough bodies to go around. Supply is low, and can’t come near to keeping up with demand. Certain types of bodies are particularly difficult to obtain, and thus command a higher price; for example, pregnant women could not legally be hung, so their bodies are rare and valuable finds. There is immense pressure on medical schools like Hunter’s to produce the goods – and immense incentive for somebody to come up with a solution to the stiff shortage.
And that is how London developed a thriving black market in fresh human remains. If you couldn’t legally obtain a body from an execution, you could try to dig up a recently buried one from a nearby churchyard. It was vital that the person be recently deceased; too much decomposition made the body useless for dissection. Grave robbers – or “resurrection men,” as they were popularly known – developed sophisticated techniques for quickly opening a fresh grave, removing the body, and rearranging the grave to appear untouched. Strangely, it was not actually a crime to steal a body, since a body couldn’t properly be said to belong to anybody. However, coffins, shrouds, burial clothing, wedding rings, and the like were property, and stealing them was a grave crime. Doctors and medical students learned not to ask questions of their vendors, but they must have known something was awry, because they generally refused to accept anything but naked bodies in order to avoid being implicated in property theft.
Though stealing the actual body was not technically illegal, it was absolutely frowned upon. Watchtowers were erected in graveyards to ward off grave robbers. However, watchmen, like all men, are easily bribed, so this precaution did little to stem the flow of corpses from churchyards to laboratories. Families were sometimes more proactive in defending the honor of their loved ones, by sitting on the grave and keeping watch themselves for around three days after the burial (beyond which point the body would be sufficiently rotted to be safe from theft), or by investing in a mortsafe to cover the grave. (Somehow I can’t help imagining anachronistic advertisements by mortsafe manufacturers: “Practice safe death – use protection!”) Grave robbing was such a fixture of pre-Victorian life that it remained in the public consciousness for decades. The practice is featured in some of the most famous literature of the Victorian era: Jerry Cruncher, a resurrection man, is one of the most colorful and memorable characters in Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities; Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story The Body Snatcher was inspired by true events, and the fictional “Mr. K—” is based on the real Dr. Robert Knox. Incidentally, Robert Louis Stevenson’s work is unusually bound up in medical history; John Hunter, the aforementioned surgeon, was the real-life inspiration for Dr. Jekyll and his counterpart Mr. Hyde. As his older brother’s assistant, John Hunter was in charge of obtaining those all-important fresh cadavers for the anatomy students, and thus became heavily involved in the quasi-criminal underworld of grave robbing (and may even have gone on a few resurrection expeditions himself). Illustrious surgeon by day, despicable body snatcher by night – Mr. Hunter definitely lived a double life worth of Dr. Jekyll. Jekyll’s fictional house is even based on Hunter’s real house. Like Jekyll, Hunter had a stylish home on a well-to-do street, connected in the back to a less prepossessing building housing his anatomy theatre and laboratory. That way, the precious cargo could be brought to the back without cracking the respectable facade of the front.
The cargo was indeed precious, due to the low supply and high demand mentioned earlier. Grave robbing was undeniably lucrative, but it wasn’t easy. That’s why two Irish entrepreneurs, William Burke and William Hare, tried out a new technique for cadaver collection in the 1820’s: murder. They were poor immigrants, living in the slums of Edinburgh, trying to swim upstream against the rough economy. When an elderly lodger of Hare’s fell ill and died, leaving behind no relatives, they decided to sell his body to a medical school in order to make up for the unpaid rent he still owed Hare at his death. Impressed with the handsome price they received (seven pounds and ten shillings), William and William decided to continue in the corpse trade – except they produced their own goods in-house. Before they were caught, Burke and Hare killed at least sixteen (or maybe seventeen, depending on whom you ask) people over the course of about a year.
Naturally, like grave robbing, this sort of behavior was frowned upon – so much so, in fact, that it influenced British politics in ways that rampant grave robbing had failed to. In order to discourage further shenanigans in the pursuit of corpses, Parliament passed the Anatomy Act in 1832, making the bodies of nearly all wards of the state available to medical schools for dissection. This certainly eased the pressures that led to Burke’s and Hare’s desperate measures, but it posed its own problems as well. For example, is it ethical to use the bodies of the poor to educate the rich? What if the rich use that knowledge to help the poor? What if they don’t? What are the rights of a deceased person? What are the rights of society? Do the dead even get a say in the whole affair?
The Anatomy Act ended up being very helpful for medical schools, providing the materials for groundbreaking research. However, it is awkward for historians, scientists, and politicians alike to admit that a pair of serial killers played a major role in consolidating support for this crucial legal reform. We all like to think of science marching heroically and unflinchingly forward, but that is not at all the picture of Victorian London that I am getting to see this summer. The paths to knowledge are not straight; we twist and turn, wandering and stalling and sometimes backtracking, until eventually we trip clumsily over something valuable, or until it appears before us, tossed by someone else. In this case, it took a pair of criminals to lead us there down a dark alley. In some ways, the nineteenth-century controversy over dissection presages the current debate over stem cell research. The raw material, in this case, is not the dead, but the unborn. Opponents of stem cell research champion the rights of insensible cell clumps, like opponents of human dissection championed the rights of insensible dead shells. Then and now, supporters of scientific research emphasized the therapeutic benefits of medical studies and the vital need for sufficient materials. Hopefully it won’t take another Burke and Hare to stimulate reform today.
[Originally posted 7/19/10]