The body snatching habits of medical students


MEDICAL MATTERS:Medical students and dead bodies have, in the past, been rather poor bed fellows, writes MUIRIS HOUSTON

‘NOT ONE foot in the grave but two feet in the attic”, a report in the current edition of Archaeology Ireland, has, not surprisingly, whetted the appetite of amateur sleuths.

It is not too often that human feet, complete with muscles and soft tissue, are found in the attic of a house in suburbia.

And while carbon dating suggests they are parts of bog bodies dating from 2,000 years ago, my curiosity was sparked by the suggestion that gardaí are pursing a line of inquiry involving a previous resident of the house who was a medical student.

Now medical students and dead bodies have, historically at least, been rather poor bed fellows.

As medical students in the 1980s, we were sternly warned that the unauthorised removal of any material from the college anatomy department would mean the end of any aspirations we had of becoming doctors.

The reason for the ultimatum was that previous generations of students considered it a rite of passage to temporarily remove skulls, hand bones and even semi-dissected arms from the department.

These were then strategically placed on park benches and even in bus shelters, before the pranksters retreated some distance to watch the reaction of members of the public. Some even staged “Alas, poor Yorick” moments for the benefit of passersby.

Understandable in a “Doctor in the House” sort of way, these japes were clearly disrespectful to those who had donated their bodies to medical science. And presumably they threatened the cardiac well-being of certain members of the public to boot.

But practices of a far more iniquitous nature led to the passing of an Anatomy Act in 1832. Human bodies for dissection were in short supply: body snatching from graveyards became a lucrative activity for those dubbed “resurrectionists”.

According to a 1947 review in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), “The raising of bodies, or ‘things’ as they were called in the slang, was normally carried out at night.

“The resurrectionists not only bribed the watchmen, sextons and other interested parties to allow the exhumation to go unhindered, but also paid many of them regularly, as well as common lodging house keepers, workhouse supervisors, hospital attendants and undertakers to inform them when a person died.”

Meanwhile an 1879 BMJ piece entitled: “Reminiscences of a medical student prior to the passing of the Anatomy Act”, gives some insight into the nefarious activities of Dublin body snatchers.

“Our principal report for supply was ‘Bully’s Acre’, as it was called, from the class of men buried in the avenue of elms leading to the Royal Hospital, the residence of the Commander of the Forces in Ireland, but now closed as a cemetery.

“We employed our dissecting room porters to accompany funerals, and mark the recent grave which appeared to suit our purpose, and we had in our pay the old pensioner who kept the gatehouse, and used a lighted candle in the window as a signal. Night fell, and our operations commenced.”

I will spare you the gruesome description that follows. However, it was the activities of two Irish men, William Burke and William Hare, that finally prompted the introduction of the 1832 legislation by Lord Warburton.

Burke and Hare ran a lodging home for the poor in Edinburgh. Initially they sold the bodies of those who died naturally in their home to anatomists.

Among those who quietly purchased cadavers was the noted anatomy professor, Robert Knox.

But when the “natural” supply dried up, some 16 lodgers were smothered by the two landlords and promptly sold to anatomy teachers. The scam quickly unravelled when medical students recognised the cadavers as previously healthy lodgers, who had been alive and well just a short time before.

Although the Anatomy Act brought welcome regulation and decriminalisation to the process of obtaining cadavers for teaching, it did so at the expense of those who died in poorhouses.

All unclaimed bodies from these institutions were assigned to anatomy dissectors.

Now, of course, people donate their bodies to medical science in a highly regulated scheme run by university anatomy departments. The dissection room is treated as sacred ground.

And while computer programmes are now available that permit the “virtual” peeling away of body layers, most medical tyros still experience the actual wonders of the human body and appreciate the altruism of those who lie before them.