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Logo of bmjThis ArticleThe BMJ
BMJ. 2007 May 5; 334(7600): 956.
PMCID: PMC1865394
Past Caring

Grave expectations

Wendy Moore, freelance writer and author, London

A dearth of suitable bodies has long been a cause of sleepless nights for surgeons. Today, members of the Royal College of Surgeons may toss and turn in anxiety over a predicted 30% shortfall in the 1000 bodies medical schools need annually. In 1828, surgeons giving evidence to the select committee on anatomy were just as concerned at a 200 shortfall in the 700 cadavers needed by the London schools alone.

Naturally enough the source of bodies for dissection has changed—as has the reason for the sleepless nights.

Before the 1832 Anatomy Act, surgeons were accustomed to being dragged out of bed in the early hours to pay exorbitant fees to lawless gangs of body snatchers for mouldering corpses filched from paupers' graveyards. Indeed, if they did not make acceptable arrangements with the grave robbers, they might find body parts strewn at either end of their street—an easy signpost to the nightwatchmen—as anatomy teacher Joshua Brookes discovered to his cost.

But when bodies were in short supply, surgeons and students had to venture out at night themselves to exhume suitable bodies—at the risk of being arrested, stoned, or even shot.

John Hunter almost certainly led students in night-time expeditions from his brother William's Covent Garden school to plunder nearby churchyards in the mid-1700s. But long after most anatomy teachers had found it expedient to pay the Resurrection Men to dirty their hands for them, students in Scotland, Ireland, and America were still forced to shift for themselves.

One distinguished professor of anatomy, giving evidence to the 1828 committee, recalled student parties in Glasgow—to graveyards, not the students' union bar—when he was often shot at by vigilante groups guarding their relatives' graves. At least, if someone was injured, there was always a surgeon on hand to extract the bullet.

Later, discovered with a stolen skull while teaching in Edinburgh, he had been paraded through the town, pelted with stones, and tried “like a common criminal.”

In New York, surgeons had to seek refuge in the city jail when furious locals discovered their body-raising activities in 1788. And in Dublin medical students joined forces with the university's art students for nightly expeditions to lift bodies, even in the early 19th century.

If surgeons today are relieved that at least their nightly exploits are more mundane, they may still look back wistfully at the diminution of their persuasive powers in the committee rooms of Westminster since 1828. Sir Astley Cooper, then president of the Royal College of Surgeons, left MPs in no doubt of his useful connections when he informed them chillingly that, “there is no person, let his station in life be what it may, whom, if I were disposed to dissect, I could not obtain.” It certainly beat threatening to vote for the other side.

Articles from The BMJ are provided here courtesy of BMJ Publishing Group