Doctors, dissection and the resurrection men.

Posted: March 27, 2013 in History, London, UK

Yesterday morning I had a meeting in Southwark, so after lunch I went onto the Museum of London to see the exhibition – Doctors, dissection and resurrection men. The exhibition covers the period in history in the early 1800s. Medical science was in its infancy and very little was known about the functioning of the body. Surgeons were beginning to realise that in order to have a much higher success rate in operations they needed to practice these procedures before trying them out on live people. This meant the need for dead bodies to be available for them to practice on. It soon became clear that the demand far outstripped the need. ‘Specialist’ Purveyors of corpses began to appear. At first these began to supply legitimately sourced cadavers. However as the demand grew some of them began to turn to other means to meet the requirement. They would often go into graveyards late at night and remove newly buried corpses from their graves. Some even went further and began to murder victims in order to supply their corpses to the anatomy schools.


In 1828 the notorious Edinburgh pair of Burke and Hare were apprehended, tried and subsequently executed for their reign of terror in the city. This led such people to be described as ‘Burkers’. London’s most notorious burkers – Bishop, Williams and May came to notice a couple of years later.


Their most infamous crime, and the one for which they were apprehended, involved the murder of ‘the Italian boy’. Having drowned him they first took the corpse to Guy’s Hospital, but the school there would not deal with them. They then went on to King’s College in the Strand.


Here the anatomy school were very suspicious as to whether this was a legitimately obtained corpse. They called the police and the three men were taken into custody. Subsequent enquiries revealed exactly how the young man had died and the three were charged with murder. At the trial all were convicted and Bishop and Williams was sentenced to be executed. May escaped execution as it was accepted by the court that he had no knowledge of the murders. He received a life sentence.
As a result of these cases it was clear that something needed to be done to regulate this trade. In 1832 Parliament passed the anatomy act, which made it legal for authorised medical schools to retain the corpses of people who had died in hospital but whose bodies were not claimed by relatives – for the purposes of medical education. This act remained in force until 2004 when the UK government passed a new act which required patient, or next of kin, consent for any human tissue to be used in research.

  1. mrhugo2013 says:

    Very interesting. It’s amazing what people will do for money haha.

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