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  • Susan Elaine Jones

Consenting Dissections

Updated: May 2, 2021

Anyone who works with anatomy or zoology museums, or human skeletons has writ in their mind one big thing:

That, in the wake of the Burke and Hare bodysnatching scandal, was the act that put an end to the nasty underhand practice of the resurrection men, as it placed the "unclaimed poor" into the hands of the anatomists. Though a major step forward, it is still seen with distaste nowadays as an exploitation of the disenfranchised, and no doubt was in some cases.

But not all cases.

We will never be privy to the many discussions, negotiations and agreements that happened between doctor and patient, or be able to assess the rights and wrongs. This somehow does not stop many people assuming that there were only wrongs.

Someday, I will have enough energy and focus to write a dissertation on this question, as it is nothing like the black and white issue of abuse of power that many portray it to be. There are some really interesting evidence about the different experiences of "freak shows" - which were sometimes actually a self-employed businessman selling his appearance and conversation at dinners - not unlike politicians and actors today. Meanwhile, treatment by the medical profession was "variable" - for example, Joseph Merrick was originally against attending medical lectures as he was "stripped naked and felt like an animal in a cattle market" - this changed into his later deep and close friendship with the same medical man, Frederick Treves, due to changes in perception and mutual understanding.

My own strong feeling is of wanting my body to help my fellows - from giving blood when I could to carrying a donor card and discussing my wishes for organ donation with relatives, friends, husband and partners and, well, pretty much anyone who will listen, and future wishes to help teach Anatomy, if not become a teaching skeleton myself. And I know I am far from alone - many people I have met at death positive events have a strong urge for their dead body to be useful in some way.

I am certain that there were people, even then, who happily, willingly wished their bodies to be dissected to further the understanding of the medics. Though today we have mechanisms for informed consent and signing up with your local teaching hospital (e.g. the FAQ for Cambridge Anatomy Department donations can be found here), there were little to no way of recording such occurrences in the past, so it can be a hard argument to defend.

Last week, I was doing research on an entirely unrelated museum topic, I happened across a reference that I had heard before but could not put my fingers on again.

In the 1830s, in the midst of the moral discussions that would become enshrined in the 1832 Anatomy Act, ninety-nine gentlemen of Dublin, all in good positions in society, willingly signed the following document:

“We, whose names are here unto affixed, being convinced that the knowledge of anatomy is of the utmost value to mankind, insomuch as it illustrates various branches of natural and moral science, and constitutes the very foundation of the healing art; and believing that the erroneous opinions and vulgar prejudices which prevail with regard to dissection will be most effectually removed by practical examples, do hereby deliberately and solemnly express our desire that at the usual period after our death our bodies, instead of being interred, should be devoted by our surviving friends to the more rational, benevolent, and honourable purpose of explaining the structure, functions, and diseases of the human being.”

Taken from "The History of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland" by Sir Charles A. Cameron, page 185. Available online here to read for context.

I am noting this as a reference for all the times that this discussion is raised, that it is automatically assumed that dissection was unwilling and an abuse, and there was a disparity of the poor as victims and the wealthier who would not suffer from such treatment, that that is simply not the case.

Image of Dr James Macartney with quote explaining that dissection is not an insult to the body
Dr James Macartney - informed consent pioneer


Reading further about this chap, I love him more and more. I may have to make a series of postcards on him.

Recreation of vase with inscription to Dr Macartney
recreation of vase containing the ashes of the heart of Dr O'Connor

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