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Contexts -- Science -- Biology -- Anatomy -- Dissection

The dissection of human cadavers was controversial from ancient times, and was a topic fraught with controversy and popular superstition in Mary Shelley's day.

The taboo against desecrating the bodies of the dead goes back many centuries; it was prohibited by both ancient Greek and Roman religions. The first recorded instance of medical dissection of human bodies is in the sixth century BCE, when the Greek philosopher Alcmaeon began his research. In 275 BCE, Herophilus of Chalcedon (a follower of Hippocrates) founded the first school of anatomy at the Museum of Alexandria, encouraging his students to overcome their fear of dissecting human bodies.

In the year 30 C.E., the Roman physician Aulus Cornelius Celsus published an important collection of Greek medical writings, in which he suggested that "to open the bodies of the dead is necessary for learners." In 180 C.E., the Greek physician Galen followed Celsus's advice when he first published the results of his work on anatomy, based on two clandestine dissections.

The taboo continued into the post-Classical era. Christian doctrine promises the resurrection of the body, which many thought to be impossible if a body were anatomized. The Council of Tours in 1163 led to the Church's formulation of a prohibition against human dissections in the hopes of curtailing the practice of dismembering and boiling the remains of Crusaders killed in battle before their shipment home. But physicians at Salerno's medical school defied Church authority in 1235, and William of Saliceto published a record of his dissections in Chirurgia in 1275.

The first public demonstration of human anatomy came in 1315; Mondino de Luzzi, an Italian surgeon, published Anatomia, the first manual on dissection. The Renaissance saw a resurgence in interest in anatomy, in part urged by the studies of such artists as Leonardo da Vinci, who (in 1510) demonstrated the homology of muscular structures in humans and animals -- Leonardo, however, did not publish these drawings in his lifetime. The taboo against dissecting human cadavers continued well past the Middle Ages; Andreas Vesalius, for instance, one of the founders of modern anatomy, received death sentence under the Inquisition for his dissections (1564). His experience, gained by performing dissections himself rather than relying on assistants, led him to question classical medical authorities; recognizing that such figures as Galen had been forbidden by Greek and Roman religious law from studying human anatomy directly, he discovered that their work was a pastiche of guesswork and analogy from animal anatomy. In 1543 he published his masterpiece, De corporis humani fabrica, in seven volumes, providing the first accurate drawings of human anatomy.

The Reformation freed physicians in Protestant countries from the authority of the Catholic Church, and in 1565, London's Royal College of Physicians was given the authority to dissect of human cadavers. Nearly a century later, in 1656, Olof Rudbeck became professor of anatomy at Uppsala (after studying in Leyden), where he built Sweden's first anatomical theatre in the face of a public outcry.

As human dissections became more numerous, the need for a source of cadavers became more pressing. Criminals and the unclaimed poor often satisfied the demand. England in the eighteenth century used the bodies of condemned criminals for medical research. Matt of the Mint, in John Gay's Beggar's Opera (1728), explains the fate of his brother, referring to the anatomy theatres as otamies:

Poor brother Tom had an accident this time twelve-month, and so clever a made fellow he was, that I could not save him from those flaying rascals the surgeons; and now, poor man, he is among the otamies at Surgeon's Hall.
The practice that was meant both to supply the surgeons with cadavers and to serve as a deterrent to criminals who feared the desecration of their remains, and contemporary evidence suggests that it was successful: many people considered anatomization worse than hanging itself. In fact many times the crowds at public executions would riot to prevent the surgeons from claiming the corpses, and one such incident is described by Samuel Richardson:
As soon as the poor creatures were half-dead, I was much surprised, before such a number of peace-officers, to see the populace fall to haling andpulling the carcasses with so much earnestness, as to occasion several warm rencounters, and broken heads. These, I was told, were the friends of the person executed, or such as, for the sake of tumult, chose to appear so, and some persons sent by private surgeons to obtain bodies for dissection. The contests between these were fierce and bloody, and frightful to look at.

(Cited in Ruth Richardson, Death, Dissection, and the Destitute [1988].)

The result was that many surgeons were forced to turn to grave-robbing and hiring body-snatchers. The literature of the late eighteenth century provides an index of public opinion concerning body-snatching. The ghul, a grave-robbing figure from Arabic mythology, first appeared in English (anglicized as ghoul) in Beckford's Vathek (1786).

In April 1788, New Yorkers rioted for three days upon discovering that bodies had been stolen from a graveyard. Children peered through windows of the Society of the Hospital of the City of New York and discovered the medical students dissecting human cadavers. The children's parents investigated, and one discovered that his late wife's grave had been robbed. A mob, five thousand strong, stormed the hospital (and later the jail where several doctors took refuge), leading to a three-day riot which the militia dispersed only by firing muskets into the crowd. In 1789, New York passed a law making it possible for doctors to obtain cadavers without resorting to body-snatching. A similar bill was passed in London only in 1832; until then, sometimes even grave-robbing did not satisfy the need for cadavers. In 1829, William Burke was hanged in Edinburgh for murdering victims by asphyxiation in order to provide cadavers to physicians.