Pre-anaesthetic amputations, dissection of festering bodies and gory keepsakes made from criminals’ skin — a fun and pleasant time was had by all at today’s Museum of London preview.
Doctors, Dissection And Resurrection Men was prompted by the discovery, six years ago, of a forgotten burial ground beside the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel. 262 skeletons were disinterred, many of whom carried the marks of dissection, autopsy and amputation. This was evidence that 19th Century doctors from the hospital were cutting up the bodies of their deceased — using unclaimed patients as an alternative to corpses provided by the bodysnatchers.
The exhibition takes up the story by providing a history of dissection in London. Georgian doctors were in a bind: they needed a thorough understanding of human anatomy in order to perform surgery, yet their studies and teaching were limited to a handful of corpses from the Tyburn gallows. Grave robbers — also known as resurrection men or Burkers, after the famous Edinburgh bodysnatcher William Burke — filled a grisly and illegal niche. Eventually the law was changed to allow body donation and dissection of unclaimed corpses and the bodysnatching problem went away.
The story is illustrated with a necrocopia of bones, surgical models and sawn-off body parts. Anyone who enjoys Wellcome Collection’s often graphic exhibitions will feel at home here, with strips of skin, amputation saws and a dollop of William Burke’s brain diversely scattered among other bodyshock baubles. A strong emphasis is placed on the human stories behind these ghoulish relics. The Italian Boy case and Anne Millard’s campaign to expose the Royal London’s complicity in bodysnatching are particularly fine, if fearful, cases in point.
Other highlights include a showcase room displaying some of the Whitechapel bodies; a plaster cast of a crucified corpse, showing how the anatomical portrayal of Christ on the cross is usually inaccurate; and a modern virtual dissection table (actually a video approximation of one…the real thing is apparently too complex to let the public play with).
Those familiar with London’s medical history will be surprised at the near absence of John and William Hunter, who pretty much pioneered the collusion with bodysnatchers to aid medical teaching. Their original surgery school stood on the site of today’s Covent Garden Apple Store. Nor is there any mention of the Enlightenment physicians who first overcame the stigmas of human dissection. But this is purposely an exhibition of the early 19th Century, with little exploration of what came before or after (other than the nod to recent visualisation technology). On it’s own terms, then, this is an absorbing story of medical demand meeting criminal supply. But it is only part of the story.