Wednesday, 28 October 2015

London's Dirty Dissector: Joshua Brookes

Joshua Brookes (1761-1833) was an unusual British anatomist. Another anatomist called him "the dirtiest professional person I have ever met. ... I really know no dirty thing with which he could compare -- all and every part of him was dirt."

Brookes doesn't look too filthy in this portrait. Perhaps we should take the quotation with a grain of salt. But even if true, I suppose the bodies he dissected didn't mind a bit of dirt. He couldn't kill them, though perhaps some of the resurrection men who supplied his "subjects" might have. Burke and Hare were not unique.

Brookes studied under several eminent teachers, among them William Hunter and his more famous brother, John Hunter. He was also an innovator in preserving cadavers. He injected them with a nitrogen compound, potassium nitrate. The injections preserved them for a long time even in hot weather, allowing him to keep his school open in the summer, unlike rival schools. It was said his school stank of rotten meat, but then none of the anatomy schools can have been especially fragrant.

Brookes often got into scrapes with his suppliers, the body snatchers or resurrectionist men, presumably over prices. One gang left two decomposing corpses on his front steps, leading to a local mob action against Brookes. On another occasion, they delivered an unconscious man. Brookes only discovered the ruse when he rolled the body down the cellar stairs. Or kicked it down the stairs. He once let slip that he had done that in one case, so it my have been common practice. In this case, the man awoke, jumped up, and fled in terror. Brookes called the resurrection men "the most iniquitous set of villains who ever lived." But he did business with them, as did all the successful anatomists. (Image: "Death in the Dissection Room" by Thomas Rowlandson)

Brookes' other claim to fame was the museum of comparative anatomy he established in his house and school on Great Marlborough Street. Like his preceptor John Hunter, he also kept a menagerie of live animals on the grounds of his house. As his health and income declined in the late 1820s, Brookes sold off the anatomical collection piecemeal. (Image: Brookes' Museum, House, and School)

Further Reading: 
Ruth Richardson, Death, Dissection, and the Destitute
Sarah Wise, The Italian Boy

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Grave Robbing and Murder in Georgian Britain

Astley Cooper (1768-1841) was one of the most innovative surgeons and anatomists of the early nineteenth century. He pioneered several significant operations and added much to our knowledge of the body and pathology. There is a darker side to his story, however, one which reveals much about the relationships between power and poverty.

Cooper, who hailed from Norfolk, had an amazing ability to secure bodies for dissection, for himself and his medical pupils. He once bragged before a parliamentary inquiry into the body snatching trade that he could get anyone's body to dissect if he wanted it badly enough. His main providers were the resurrectionists, or sack 'em up men, who earned good money stealing corpses from graves or securing them otherwise before burial. (Image: The Resurrectionists, c.1775, by Thomas Rowlandson).

In some cases, we don't know how many, the snatchers didn't wait until the subjects were dead. The most famous of the murdering body snatchers were Burke and Hare in Edinburgh, who gave us the word "burking" for the procedure. (Image: Burke and Hare smothering a victim, one of 16).

Less well known are the trio of Bishop, Williams, and May, the London "Burkers" whose operation was uncovered in 1831 after the notorious case of the so-called Italian Boy. The exact number of their victims is unknown. Bishop and Williams were hung, May died on board a prison ship awaiting transport to Australia. (Image: the London burkers in the dock at their trial)

Several other burkers were executed, and it is likely others were never caught. Many of Cooper's bodies were provided by the Borough Gang, who operated out of Southwark, near Guy's and St. Thomas's Hospitals, where Cooper held surgical and anatomical positions. Some of the gang members were criminals, but others held or once held ordinary jobs as hospital porters and dissection room assistants, grave diggers, workhouse officers, and church sextons. Body snatching was not even a crime until after 1778, and then only a misdemeanor punishable by a fine and at most a few months in prison. (Image: Resurrectionists, by Phiz, 1841)

The shady source of Cooper's "dissection material" did not hurt his reputation or his income, which rose to princely sums. He even operated on a king, removing a sebaceous cyst from the head of George IV in 1820. His Majesty rewarded the surgeon with the baronetcy that made him Sir Astley Cooper, Bart.

The Burke and Hare and Italian Boy scandals did lead to a law that gradually put the resurrectionists out of business. In 1832, Parliament passed the Anatomy Act, which permitted the anatomy schools to acquire the bodies of paupers who died in a workhouse if no one claimed them within three days.

The law infuriated the working classes, those most likely to end their days in a workhouse. The fury increased after Parliament added the Poor Law Act of 1834, which made admission to the workhouse a requirement for receiving poor relief (welfare). The act was also designed to make the workhouse environment as unpleasant as possible, to discourage requests for public assistance. Families were broken up, recipients forced to wear uniforms, and fed a spare diet.The poor saw themselves as being criminalized. Prior to that time the only bodies that could be legally dissected were those executed for murder. (Images: Women and men paupers separated in Victorian workhouses)

Interestingly, the Wikipedia article on Cooper does not mention body snatching. 

Further Reading: 

Sarah Wise, The Italian Boy: Murder and Grave Robbery in 1830s London
Ruth Richardson, Death, Dissection, and the Destitute
Druin Burch,  Digging up the Dead 

Saturday, 3 October 2015

The Great Dissector of Leicester Square: John Hunter

Few visitors to London's famed Leicester Square know that it was once the site of huge numbers of dissections of human and animal bodies. During the late 18th century, it was the location of the anatomy school of the renowned (and reviled) surgeon John Hunter. 

Hunter's bust graces the central area of the square, but it is unlikely that many visitors give it more than a passing glance. They are usually there for other reasons, which I won't go into here.

The younger brother of anatomist William Hunter, John learned his trade working for William, including the art of body snatching, which was the main source of corpses for dissection until 1830's. After serving as an army surgeon for several years, he set up his own school, which eventually settled at the Square. The building, which also contained his house and extensive anatomical museum, now houses a pub. (below)

Across the square lay the house of his friend the artist Joshua Reynolds, who had a strong interest in anatomy. Reynolds' house is now an All Bar One. Don't knock Progress.

John Hunter dissected everything he could lay his hands on. His subjects included the famous Irish Giant, Charles Byrne or O'Brien, whose corpse he acquired against the deceased's wishes by bribing the man who had it, allegedly for the then enormous sum of 500 pounds. In the painting of Hunter below, one can see part of the giant's skeleton at top right.

Animals of all kinds, lower as well as higher, went under John's dissecting knives. He kept a large menagerie of animals at his suburban house at Earl's Court, including kangaroos he received from naturalist Sir Joseph Banks. 

Hunter married poet Jane Home, who wrote the lyrics to some of Haydn's English songs. John Hunter died of a heart attack in 1793 during a heated argument with the governors of St. George's Hospital, where he was head surgeon. 

His enormous anatomical collection, or what survives of it, now resides in the Hunterian Museum, at the Royal College of Surgeons, Lincoln's Inn Fields. Among the exhibits is the skeleton of O'Brien seen above.

It's fascinating stuff, but definitely not for the squeamish.

Further Reading:

Wendy Moore, The Knife Man (London: Penguin, 2006)
Druin Burch, Digging up the Dead  (London: Vintage, 2008)