King's College London
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Dickens, Scrooge and the Victorian poor

The Anatomy Act of 1832

Title page of a pamphlet owned by Richard Partridge, with his signature, dated 1832Title page of a pamphlet owned by Richard Partridge, with his signature, dated 1832 Herbert Mayo was an important figure in the medical school, a Fellow of the Royal Society and an honorable and an accomplished neuro-anatomist.

He was the first to discover and describe the actions of the 5th and 7th facial nerves, possibly through work accomplished on bodies provided by bodysnatchers.

His letter (extract below) went on to urge that the discovery of the Italian Boy's murder should serve as the pretext for the re-introduction of anatomy legislation which had failed to get through Parliament in 1828:

'The present times are particularly favourable for the open discussion of such a measure in Parliament. The present criminal system [of burking] calls loudly for suppression. We are threatened with the invasion of disease, against which every resource of medical knowledge should be carefully prepared. And the public mood is so occupied with the engrossing subjects of cholera and reform that a bill for legalising dissection, which 3 years ago might have produced a riot, would now scarcely occupy a day's attention.

'Under these circumstances, I venture to hope that the Council of King's College will take into their present consideration, whether grounding their request upon the incident which has lately occurred, they may not with some prospect of success solicit the Government to adopt some measure, through which the serious evils may be removed, that not only most prejudicially interfere with the advancement of the study of medicine, but have at the same time led to the darkest criminality in modern times.'

Extract from handwritten letterExtract from letter written by Herbert MayoExactly what Mayo hoped for came to pass. A new draft bill was submitted to Parliament and passed in parallel with the Great Reform Act of 1832. Newspapers were so preoccupied by parliamentary reform and cholera news that this legislation was barely reported. The Anatomy Act of 1832 was destined to remain in force until it was at last superseded in our own era by the Human Tissue Act of 2004, a period of over 170 years.

The Act was designed to subvert the market supplied by the bodysnatchers by legislating to create a free supply of corpses. Hitherto, the only legal source of corpses for dissection had been the gallows, and the insufficiency of this supply had created the demand for bodysnatching.

The new Anatomy Act transferred dissection from being a hated secondary punishment for murderers after execution, directly onto poverty: those dying 'unclaimed' in institutions - hospitals, workhouses, and prisons (including debtors' prisons) - without funeral funds or families to pay up could now legally be taken for dissection.

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