In 1998 Hilary Mantel published a great novel based on the life and times of 18th Century Scottish surgeon John Hunter and his anatomist brother William. Hunter was responsible for the original huge collection of pathological specimens now housed at the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in London. The surgeon was keen to obtain specimens of any and every physiological wonder he could find. In Mantel’s The Giant, O’Brien, in 1782 we find that Hunter was pursuing the dying 7 foot 7 inch tall Irish giant, Charles O’Brien (Bryne) in order to obtain his skeleton for his collection. He plied the unwilling O’Brien with promises of a cash advance for his eventual corpse. (see his skeleton in the case: photo at right)
The novel is one of my favorites.
This book paints a detailed picture of the intrigue and almost desperation that was prevalent during these times, when medical science was struggling to advance, but access to human cadavers was scarce. It also describes the intrigue and illegal activity that supported the men of medicine in the 18th and 19th centuries. There was a critical shortage of human cadavers for teaching and research before the Anatomy Act of 1832 opened the poorhouse doors to give access to those too poor to afford a proper burial. Until then, the few legal bodies that were available from hanged criminals were not enough for the growing number of anatomy schools. Soon the Resurrection Men were able to fill the void by grave robbing and body snatching for quick cash. William Burke and William Hare didn’t take long to evolve into murderers when they realized how easy it was to cash in by selling cadavers to Dr. Robert Knox, an ambitious Edinburgh anatomist. In 1828, after 16 murders over an 11-month period, they were caught and Burke was hanged AND anatomized. The verb to be burked or burking entered the English language. Director John Landis is about to complete a new film (2010) — Burke and Hare, one of many such films made about them over the years.
I found a recent documentary film about body snatching that is strangely reminiscent of a 1987 episode, “Body Banks”, of the quirky sci-fi television show Max Headroom. The documentary by the BBC’s Horizon examines the high monetary value of the human remains needed for research, testing, study, and medical transplant and how this results in the illicit trafficking of such remains.
This is all very different from the live organ donations that are much more regulated and controlled by the in-hospital context in which they are harvested. See Organ Donation and Transplantation from the Encyclopedia of Death and Dying website.
BBC/Horizon promotional text for the documentary: How Much is Your Dead Body Worth?
When veteran broadcaster Alistair Cooke died in 2004 few suspected that he was yet to uncover his greatest story. What happened to his body as it lay in a funeral home would reveal a story of modern day grave robbery and helped smash a body-snatching ring that had made millions of dollars by chopping up and selling-off over 1000 bodies. Dead bodies have become big business. Each year millions of people’s lives are improved by the use of tissue from the dead. Bodies are used to supply spare parts, and for surgeons to practice on. Horizon investigates the medical revolution that has created an almost insatiable demand for body parts and uncovers the growing industry and grisly black market that supplies human bodies for a price.
Watch it in its entirety at Top Documentary Films.
How Much Is Your Dead Body Worth? BBC-UK 49:00 min
***WARNING – Contains Scenes Of Human Dissection and Human Body Parts***
… well worth the watch, though.