The Anatomy Act of 1832

by M-Gillies

A newspaper account of the West Point Murders which precipitated the Anatomy Act of 1832. William Hare turned King's evidence, and William Burke was hanged, dissected and displayed. Dr. Knox was not prosecuted, which outraged many in Edinburgh.

It was during the eighteenth and nineteenth century that anatomy schools in England and Scotland began seeing an increase in popularity. However, with Roman Catholic and other Christians believing the body to be a vessel of God and that dissected bodies could not enter heaven because people would need their whole body when they were raised from the dead, rarely did people donate their bodies to science.

With an increasing demand for more specimens, medical schools were given one cadaver a year for dissection under the Murder Act of 1751, which saw executed murderers donated to schools for dissection. With 50 executions occurring annually throughout England, many lobbyists advocated an increase in the number of donated cadavers, pleading with Parliament to pass the Anatomy Act.

As early as 1810, surgeons, anatomists and physiologists formed an anatomical society to further impress upon the government the necessity for an alteration in the law.

Through the Anatomy Act, anatomists would gain access to unclaimed cadavers of paupers from workhouses to fulfil the need of attaining more bodies for dissection. However, the poor saw this as a mistreatment of their status in society, deeming the act as a “criminalization of poverty,” due to the fact that only the bodies of executed murderers were sanctioned to be dissected.

While the medical community argued dissection was necessary to improve the quality of mortal life and that no one would benefit from the research more than the poor, the argument only heightened a division between classes.

Researchers, who were often members of aristocracy and the only ones who could afford medical education, regarded the poor as too uneducated and savage to appreciate the knowledge gained from dissection.

The poor, on the other hand saw the aristocracy as butchers who regarded the lower class as bodies to be cut up in a quest for fame and glory under the guise of scientific knowledge. Thus, any hopes of having a Bill passed in favor of instituting an Anatomy Act was dismissed through public revulsion and fear.

In order to further their research in the field of anatomy, anatomists and researchers began purchasing bodies on a “no questions asked” basis, motivating the conception of body snatching.

By 1828, an already horrified public learnt of the gruesome scandal of two particular body snatchers, William Burke and William Hare, who, in an attempt to bypass grave digging, turned to murder and then selling the cadavers to re-owned anatomist, Dr. Robert Knox.

Public opinion toward the study of anatomy hit a new low in England and Scotland, however, the medical community used the scandal to their benefit and argued that, had they had access to a supply of cadavers from the unclaimed population, they wouldn’t have had to resort to purchasing stolen cadavers.

In 1832, through the Royal Assent, Parliament approved the Anatomy Act, which allowed anatomists the ability to legally harvest the unclaimed cadavers of paupers from workhouses and other public housing establishments to continue their research in the subsequent improvement of life.

Read more:

The Corpus and the Hare | The Timeline

©2019, All rights reserved.