The Criminal Corpse, Anatomists, and the Criminal Law: Parliamentary Attempts to Extend the Dissection of Offenders in Late Eighteenth-Century England
journal contributionposted on 27.02.2015, 13:22 by Richard Ward
In the later eighteenth century, two schemes were introduced in Parliament for extending the practice of handing over the bodies of executed offenders to anatomists for dissection. Both measures were motivated by the needs of the field of anatomy, including the improvement of surgical skill, the development of medical teaching in the provinces, and public anatomical demonstrations. Yet both failed to pass into law due to concerns about the possibly damaging effects in terms of criminal justice. Through a detailed analysis of the origins and progress of these two parliamentary measures—a moment when the competing claims of anatomy and criminal justice vied for supremacy over the criminal corpse—the article sheds light on judicial attitudes to dissection as a method of punishment and adds to our understanding of the reasons why, in the nineteenth century, the dread of dissection would come to fall upon the dead poor rather than executed offenders.