Object of the month: An anatomical demonstration

17 July 2013

 Wood and ivory figure group representing an anatomical demonstration. Science Museum, London / Wellcome Images
[object Object]

Wood and ivory figure group representing an anatomical demonstration. Science Museum, London/Wellcome Images

As part of our curious journey, Medicine Man will be closing on 21 July, to return in spring 2014. Before we begin packing things away, Muriel Bailly sneaks in a second object for this month and takes a look at the gruesome context of one small carving in the collection.

This 18th-century wood and ivory anatomical model takes its inspiration from a 16th-century painting you may be familiar with: The Anatomy Lesson of Doctor Nicolaes Tulp by Rembrandt. The painting shows Dr Tulp explaining the musculature of the arm to medical professionals and was commissioned to Rembrandt by Tulp himself as a social group portrait, which were very popular at the time. The event can be accurately dated to 16 June 1632, and the body Dr Tulp is dissecting is that of convicted criminal Aris Kindt. Indeed, at that time, dissection was considered so offensive towards the dead that it was only permitted on the bodies of convicted criminals as they were already outside the community.

Rembrandt and this painting have been popular since the 16th century, but Rembrandt’s artistic skills are not the only reason why copies of it were still being produced about 200 years later. The 18th century – referred to in England as the Georgian period and corresponding to the European Enlightenment – was a thriving period for scientific and medical research. Both George I and George II were very interested in science, and George III (whose 275th birthday was recently celebrated at Wellcome Collection) was no exception. The royal family’s interest in science was important for two reasons: natural philosophers – the name given to scientists at that time – needed patrons, and the tastes of the royal family influenced the fashion of the day.

Throughout his life George III collected various scientific and mathematical objects to entertain the royal family, and his collection is on display at the Science Museum today. George III’s enthusiasm for the sciences gave a new impulse to medical research. Medical schools started flourishing all around London, and all of them proposed public dissections, which were extremely popular. However, as dissection could only be practiced on criminals’ cadavers, the situation led to a problem of supply and demand. In other words, there were not enough (convicted) criminals around London at that time! The lack of primary resource drove the development of a new profession: body snatchers.

Surgeons were in desperate need of fresh cadavers for their research and lectures. Seeing a gap in the market, men called body snatchers, or ‘resurrection men’, would dig up freshly buried bodies from the graveyards and sell them to whomever was offering the most. In addition to being naturally repulsing aspect, it was a very dangerous occupation and there was a high risk of catching an infection when the bodies were not very fresh.

Londoners became aware of this black market and started fearing for their safety in the afterlife. People began to be buried in sealed, iron coffins, and it was not unusual to have family and friends watching the tomb at night soon after the burial to keep grave robbers away.This climate of tension reached its peak when body snatchers took their business a step further and committed what have become known as “anatomical murders”.

The reward paid by surgeons to body snatchers depended on how fresh the body was. Citizens watching graveyards at night made it difficult for resurrection men to get fresh bodies to sell to medical schools. Inspired by Burke and Hare in Scotland, John Bishop and Thomas Williams in London started murdering victims to sell anatomists. In July 1831 they tried to sell the corpse of a 14-year-old boy to King’s College School of Anatomy. Richard Partridge, an eminent surgeon at the time, was rather suspicious of the very good and fresh condition of the body and subsequently reported them to the police. Bishop and Williams were arrested shortly afterwards and confessed to having stolen between 500 and 1000 bodies, but they claimed the young boy was their first murder.

It is during this time that this wood and ivory model would have been produced. The model is largely faithful to the original painting, but a beautiful woman has taken the place of the convicted criminal Aris Kindt. At the time some people were still opposed to dissection and had strong views on the appropriate treatment of the dead. The intention of the makers and collectors of this model was to show the noble pursuit of knowledge and to separate it from the dirty business of grave robbing.

To put an end to this period of chaos, the Anatomy Act was voted into law by Parliament in 1832. This allowed surgeons to practice dissection on unclaimed bodies and was eventually superseded by individuals donating their own bodies to medical science. Finally, the dead could rest easy, free of the curse of the resurrection men.

Muriel Bailly is a Visitor Services Assistant at Welcome Collection.