During the intellectually ravenous period of the mid to late 1700’s, the study of medicine was flourishing and blooming like some strange, bloody, sticky anatomical flower, as doctors engaged themselves in the long road to true, empirical understanding of the human body. Luminaries such as my personal hero John Hunter, among others, were eager to expand their skills in the diagnoses of ailments, curing of disease, but most notably in the science of surgery, which depended on the lovely art of anatomical dissection. Ongoing European wars also called for vast numbers of medical professionals to patch up and ease the suffering of soldiers wounded on foreign fields. It clearly seemed as though the living were intent on remaining alive, and consequently the dead were in very high demand.
Doctors believed (at least the reputable ones, as many patients would also undoubtedly agree), that prior to plunging ones hands elbow-deep into the torso of a writhing, very much awake patient, a modicum of anatomical experience was probably a good idea. Uncountable are the numbers of hacks and quacks who practiced surgical medicine with little to no practical experience; they left a trail of mangled, hacked and perforated victims in their wake. Have you ever taken apart a clock and upon reassembly found a few parts left aside? Well, that is decidedly not the result one wants following a surgical operation.
In the eighteenth century, invasive surgery remained largely unexplored territory. Most work was done on the exterior of the body and surgery was only attempted when all other options were out – mainly because an ignorance of sepsis and infection would inevitably lead to painful death. Physicians of the age blindly repeated and perpetuated the same failures of the ancient Roman healer Galen of almost 1,500 years prior, with all of his blood-letting, phlegm analysis and other delightfully backward remedies. It was the advent of the private anatomy schools – sort of a night class with corpses – that catalyzed true physiological study.
Occasional dissection already occurred courtesy of the Company of Barber Surgeons, with their legally allotted quantity of convicts designated for public performance. These vapid, uninteresting demonstrations served more as a means to deter criminal behavior – the slab was the ultimate destination for many a ne’er-do-well – than it did encourage anatomical study.
The fledgling, competing anatomical schools of the time, prior to construction of dedicated arenas, performed dissections in their own houses – no doubt causing some consternation with the house staff when it came to lunchtime. William Cheselden, a renowned surgeon of his era, held events in his own home, purportedly on the dinner table. It is unknown where he opted to take his meals.
Meeting notes of the period stated:
‘…the bodies have been a great annoyance to the tables, dresser boards and utensils in the upper kitchen by reason of the blood, filth and entrails of these anatomies.’
One can only imagine.
Classes were held in spring, autumn and winter for obvious reasons; it wasn’t advisable to dissect in the pitch-heat of summer. The school wasn’t exactly going to get full use of the corpse when it would end up rotting in a few days to a state of decay and repugnance that even a seasoned dissector would turn his nose up to. And contrary to received opinion, a good mentor of anatomy starts with the stomach and moves on out; post-mortem, the bacteria in the gut whose role it is to reduce ingested food to little more than an appetizing slurry, now turns and performs the same service on the body that held it for it’s brief tenure on this earth. Ergo, you dissect the parts of the body that will disintegrate the fastest, for obvious, economic reasons.
Within the confines of these dimly lit private anatomy classes of the mid-1750’s, bodies were slowly and methodically torn to pieces, mini-auditoriums of morbidly fascinated students craning their necks to glimpse the gruesome yet decidedly informative interior of the human body.
But where do you find the material, that is, the bodies to study upon, that are so essential to the training of the young surgeon-to-be?
In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, the most feared destination for your corpse was the anatomists slab. As I’ve discussed in previous articles, demand exceeded legitimate supply, and consequently corpses were acquired from cemeteries; recently interred bodies being rudely extracted from the ground and sold for magnificent sums to the grateful surgeons. That being said, it’s important, yet no less harrowing, to investigate the period’s more legitimate source for bodies; the gallows.
Hanging day was quite the public holiday: imagine a festival with food, music, joviality, and a massive, excited crowd, but with the main entertainment being that of watching someone slowly hang.
Welcome to mid-eighteenth century England.
See you next week for the festivities! Bring snacks!
(Sources available on request)
This article was originally published in The Pandora Society on August 26th, 2015