Search Newsletters

Newsletter Editor's Column

Human tissue then and now

Anybody who works with human tissue must reflect from time to time on thorny issues. What is allowed, and what isn't? Ultimately, Society at large decides, and our legislators incorporate its opinions (more or less) in legislation like the Human Tissue Act (2004) and the slightly different Human Tissue (Scotland) Act 2006, to guide us.

Sketch of Dr. KnoxI haven't yet seen the latest cinematic outing for those Regency facilitators of Medical education, William Burke and William Hare, providers of fresh subjects to the able if unscrupulous Edinburgh anatomist Robert Knox. Burke and Hare are often referred to as body-snatchers or resurrectionists, a term usually reserved for those who disinterred the bodies of individuals who had died of natural causes.

This disagreeable and sometimes hazardous trade was not their business model. They had however discovered the profit to be made from a corpse by selling the body of a lodger who had died owing them money. At first they tried to sell it to the Anatomy Department of Edinburgh University but a keen student redirected them to Dr Knox's rival establishment in Surgeons' Square where they obtained £7/10/-.

The Bank of England's inflation calculator equates this to £600 today. The temptation was too much and over the next 12 months they murdered 16 known victims employing a standard modus operandi or SOP of getting the victim drunk and suffocating them by holding the nose and compressing the chest. Conspicuous victims included a well known 'natural', James Wilson, and a young woman, Mary Patterson, usually said to have been a notorious prostitute, and to have been recognised in Knox's dissecting room by a student who had known her in other circumstances.

Quote1The exploits of Burke and Hare stimulated those in authority at last to make provision for a legitimate supply of bodies for medical educationQuote2

This is doubtful; according to Lisa Rosner [2009] she had been discharged from the Edinburgh Magdalene Asylum on 8 April 1828, only a day before her murder on the 9th. As an inmate of the Asylum she could not have been a streetwalker in the weeks and months before her murder, whatever may have happened before her admission there. Given limited or more likely no access to alcohol in the asylum, and harsh treatment, a painful picture emerges no longer of a hardened, street-wise tart but a vulnerable young woman suddenly at large in Edinburgh. 'Christopher North' found Burke superficially 'a good specimen of the Irish character - not quarrelsome... a pleasant enough companion... not deficient in intelligence'.

Mary was easily snared by Burke's Irish charm, easily incapacitated with drink, easily done away with. On closer acquaintance, North found Burke 'Impenitent as a snake, remorseless as a tiger. I studied in his cell his hard, cruel eyes, his hardened lips, which ruth never touched nor moved from their cunning compression ; his voice rather soft and calm, but steeped in hypocrisy and deceit; his collected and guarded demeanour, full of danger and guile - all, all betrayed, as he lay in his shackles, the cool, calculating, callous, and unrelenting villain'. Poor Mary!


Hare turned King's Evidence; his fate is unknown.
Burke was hanged and dissected.

The exploits of Burke and Hare stimulated those in authority at last to make provision for a legitimate supply of bodies for medical education. Massachusetts was first in 1831; the UK Anatomy Act was enacted in 1832. Both of these provided for unclaimed bodies to be made available to anatomy schools. As a consequence persons ending up on the dissecting table were usually those on the margins of society, often from Workhouses established by the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, until their abolition as late as 1930.

Portrait of CooperThis social imbalance was a key theme in Ruth Richardson's Death, Dissection and the Destitute [1987]. Dissection prior to 1831 may have been slightly more egalitarian: Astley Cooper testified to the Select Committee on Anatomy in 1828 that 'no dead person, however exalted, is safe from the activities of the resurrectionists: the law only enhances the price, and does not prevent the exhumation.’

Cooper ought to have known: he certainly used the services of men like Ben Crouch and Joseph Naples, and may well have resurrected some 'things' on his own account. Syme and Liston did. As late as 1878 the body of John Scott Harrison, son of the 9th and father of the 23rd US Presidents, was found in Ohio Medical College, having been 'resurrected'. Even today grave-protecting cages still stand by Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh and the Ramshorn Kirk in Glasgow.

These events from a bygone age may seem very remote to our own concerns but the issues raised by the body and human tissues as items of commerce are really no different today. In the right circumstances a body might be worth a lot more than seven pounds and ten shillings (or even £600). After all, Henrietta Lacks' cervical cancer cells are still proliferating in laboratories in 2010, 60 years after her death. And genes have been patented, to good commercial effect.

James Going
University of Glasgow
October 2010


Wilson, John ('Christopher North'). Blackwood's Magazine, March, 1829, reprinted in Nodes Ambrosiance, XIX, 14.
Richardson, Ruth. Death, Dissection and the Destitute. Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1987.
Rosner, Lisa. The Anatomy Murders. Pennsylvania University Press, 2009.
Skloot, Rebecca. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Crown Publishers, 2010.


Free Joomla Templates from Compass
P2P file-sharing limewire download ! Kx1 ile kilo derdine son ver. kucuk oldugunumu dusunuyosun penis buyutucu hapi ile bu derde son ver. fantazi gecelerimi ozluyorsun sexshop magazasina gel. ideal kilonuza ZAYIFLAMA hapi ile ulasin. Burn your free limewire download own Music&Movie CDs acai berry mi herbal vivid hapi burada. yeni videolar free porn izlenir. erotik market seks market kaliteli sex shop sitesi Aslinda kullanmak cok kolay da hersey mevcut. cinsel erotik market kaliteli sex shop sitesi film watch. online music free limewire download. fantazi sexshop kaliteli sex shop sitesi erotik icerikli porn izleme adresi. saglikli seks shop kaliteli sex shop sitesi free movie limewire pro downloads. ucuz sex shop kaliteli sex shop sitesi ZAYIFLAMA hakkinda hersey sadece de. erotik erotikmarket kaliteli sex shop sitesi seks market seksmarket kaliteli sex shop sitesi unlimited music movie limewire basic download. cinsel shop sex kaliteli sex shop sitesi arkadasinimi kaybettin arkadas arama derdine son ver. free limewire download. film porno watch. Zayiflama hapinda red pepper zayiflayabilirsin. hayat dolu seksshop kaliteli sex shop sitesi fantastik kaliteli sex shop sitesi Guncel geciktirici sitesi. online movie limewire pro download search. zayiflama derdine son ZAYIFLAMA HAPLARI zayiflama hapinda olay. Saglikli diyet rehberi.