It's 15 years since the last public dissection of a human body took place in England, performed by Gunther Von Hagens in November 2002. Gunther wanted to demystify the post-mortem examination, but was warned by the British government that he could be conducting a criminal act. The dissection went ahead in front of an audience of 500 people, and was even broadcast on Channel 4. Before this, the last time a dissection took place in public was 1832. It was around this time that William Burke and William Hare were arrested for murdering 16 people for the purpose of dissection. The resulting outcry led to the 1832 Anatomy Act, which ended the use of public dissection as punishment, only to put the onus of medical research onto the poor. Those who had no family, or who were vulnerable, impoverished or mentally ill, could legally be obtained for dissection after their death.
Post-mortems are today perhaps most closely connected with forensics. Dr Bernard Spilsbury (1877–1947) gained fame and notoriety by testifying in a number of contentious murder cases. His career in forensic medicine began in London in 1905 when he was appointed by St Mary’s Hospital to conduct post-mortem examinations for all of the hospital’s cases of sudden death. Conducting such examinations became Spilsbury’s special expertise and by the end of his 40-year career he had carried out an estimated 20,000 autopsies.