'I have only got a leg and thigh,' wrote a disgruntled William Hamilton in 1878, referring to his difficulty in finding enough material to complete his surgical training. Hamilton was relatively lucky. Prior to the 1832 Anatomy Act, which made it lawful for 'unclaimed or friendless bodies' to be given up for dissection, executed murderers were a would-be doctor's only legal supply of human flesh.
The Museum of London's rip-roaringly theatrical exhibition sets the scene by presenting a map of the capital from the period detailing the city's hospitals, graveyards and anatomy schools and their sometimes shadowy connections. The show goes on to trace developments in surgery in tandem with what medical journal The Lancet described as 'The horrid traffic in human flesh'. The exhibition was triggered by museum archaeologists' excavation in 2006 of a forgotten burial ground at the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel, where evidence of dissection, autopsy and amputation was discovered, revealing how the hospital used its own supply of unclaimed or friendless bodies on which to practise dissection.
A concluding film reminds us of enduring medical, political and ethical discussions about what happens to our bodies after death. Around 1,000 corpses a year are needed for teaching purposes. Demand still exceeds supply.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Well worth coffin up for…