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  • Susan Elaine Jones

Thinking about dissection

Channel Four made the first televised autopsy with Dr Gunther von Hagen's in 2002.

There was much criticism by people who I can only guess pretended to be shocked that a programme called "The Autopsy" and had explicit warnings on at the beginning and throughout, then contained images of a real dead body.

(I actually believe that most of them didn't even watch it, but disagreed with the principle of the general public being able to see a dead body. They may even disagree with medical students learning anatomy from dissection. But I don't know, as I don't know any of them.)

Since then, Channel Four produced further episodes in 2006, with decreasing shock. (Link to video of The Autopsy - Life and Death here. WARNING that's a link to a video of an autopsy... so will contain images of a dead body being cut up. Duh!)

And now the BBC have shown a Obesity: a Post Mortem (view here - warning, it will also contain images of a dead body being cut up), and BBC3 'aired' dissection of a hand and a foot (clip here... with disclaimers).

The Thinker - Gunther von Hagens

But where are the complaints? The outrage? The continuing worries that it is a gore spectacle? Even searching for complaints about these programmes doesn't bring up anything about shock and outrage. (Actually the main hit for 'BBC dissection complaint' is that actors mumble on a drama, but then that is quoted in the Daily Mail, and since Wikipedia are now not accepting that institution as a news source, who knows?)

Could it be that public attitudes are changing?

All this is on my mind as I'm reading Ruth Richardson's book, Death, Dissection and the Destitute. Though it works really hard on championing the cause of the poor, and highlighting their horror of dissection, which was enforced on "unclaimed" bodies to protect the public against bodysnatching and burking in the 1832 Anatomy Act.

However, I have to highlight that even then, attitudes were changing. As part of the ongoing public conversation, surgeons pointed out that their improved anatomical understanding would benefit in the poor in better health care (though, undoubtedly, the rich benefited more).

But at this time, health care was expensive. Mortality from operations stood at 50%, death coming not just from blood loss and infection, but ongoing pain and extra incisions as bundling surgeons struggled to find their way around a struggling, screaming patient.

leg amputation in 1775

In this time, the poor were being treated for free in hospitals. Often used as guinea pigs for practice of new surgery, or likely to end up on a dissection table if they did not recover, this is still a somewhat generous system when the only alternatives were the dreaded workhouse or the street.

And as the benefit of improved learning in anatomy became understood, some learned men, notably Jeremy Bentham made an example of breaking the taboo and bequeathing their own bodies for science. Professor Macartney of Dublin went further and organised a mass pledge of over 400 volunteers for dissection. Some patients insisted on dissection whilst being treated in hospital - notably a woman in St Thomas' Hospital in January 1828, whose pelvis was placed in the hospital museum, Patrick, a patient in Bristol Infirmary in May 1828 and a woman who bequeathed herself and her new born child to the anatomy school of London University. Though the popular view was of a universal horror, in truth then, as now, some people selflessly put themselves forward as the ultimate teaching tool.

I mention this for the Dying for Life event, I have recently been in touch with the Cambridge Anatomy School, who still champion (though very quietly) a need for bodies donated for their students to learn on. See their promotional video here (no warning, no bodies, just some nice chats with nice medical students).

So if you haven't planned where you want yourself to be in 100 years time, give them a thought.

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