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Secrets of the body snatchers.

Powers, Natasha.
  • Videos

About this work


In this Time Team special, Tony Robinson uncovers the truth behind the human body trade in the 19th century. The Royal London Hospital was established in 1740 to provide free treatment for the sick poor. But in 2006 archaeologists discovered the remains of 500 Victorian patients in the grounds. Natasha Powers, Head of Osteology at MOLA, discusses the finds with Time Team’s Jackie McKinley. The majority of the skeletons had been dismembered; implying they had been illegally dissected for teaching purposes. Prior to 1832, the only cadavers legally available to medical schools were those of executed criminals. At the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford, redevelopment plans have given archaeologists the chance to discover whether it too practiced illegal dissection. Richard Barnett, historian, explains why bodies were in high demand in the 19th century. At the time it was widely believed that mutilating a corpse would prevent the soul’s resurrection. Archaeologist Alex Langlands and surgeon Vishy Mahadevan demonstrate an 18th century dissection; bodies were dismembered into 25 separate pieces. Few objected to the legal dissection of executed criminals. But demand couldn’t match supply, paving the way for criminal gangs to supply snatched corpses to medical schools. The Museum of London’s Jelena Bekvalac reads an extract from the diary of one such ‘resurrection man’, revealing how lucrative the trade was. Increased graveyard security drove some criminals to more extreme measures. At the Royal College of Surgeons, Edinburgh, Tony relates the story of Burke and Hare, who famously murdered sixteen people for their corpses. The introduction of the Anatomy Act in 1832 finally put a stop to the practice by enabling workhouses and hospitals to sell cadavers for dissection. Two years later, the Poor Law forced thousands into workhouses, providing a ready source of income for their owners. Tony discusses the case of Mary Whitehead – whose body was illegally sold for dissection in 1857– with legal historian David Feller. The case caused public outrage, exposing the poor’s lack of rights. Two weeks of excavations on the Radcliffe site reveal no evidence of illegal practices. Instead, surgeons were sent to London to learn their trade. Body shortages in the capital led to corpses being imported by rail from the newly industrialised towns. Between 1832 and 1932, approximately 99 per cent of bodies used in medical schools were sourced from asylums, workhouses and hospitals. Historian Elizabeth Harren estimates that around 125,000 of these were illegally traded without the permission of the deceased or their families. The Anatomy Act was only repealed in 1984, and in 2001 the Alder Hey scandal revealed that UK hospitals had been storing 100,000 organs without consent. The case led to the passing of the Human Tissue Act in 2004. Despite the ethical shortcomings, the programme concludes that the illegal trade in bodies undoubtedly progressed medical science. Today, around 1000 people per year donate their bodies willingly for dissection.


UK : Channel 4, 2014.

Physical description

1 DVD (48:09 min) : sound, color, PAL.

Copyright note

Videotext Communications Ltd 2014


Broadcast on 31 August, 2014

Creator/production credits

Produced and directed by Sophie Elwin Harris; Videotext Communications Ltd in association with Wildfire Television for Channel 4



  • English

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