Reviews

Dead bodies for medical research

Despite recent technological advances in computer simulation and enhanced scanning of internal human organs, medical professionals say today there is still no proper substitute to giving trainee surgeons hands on-access to dead bodies to practice on before they move on to living patients. But here lies a problem – annual donations fall short of the 1000 cadavers needed each year.

The Royal College of Surgeons has warned that this mismatch between supply and demand, a shortfall of some 40 per cent in London alone, is damaging the quality of training for new doctors and surgeons and patients are being put at risk.

But while the situation is alarming, the phenomenon is not a new one – there has been a shortage of dead bodies provided for medical research for over 200 years, dating right back to the time when a hands on approach to dissection was introduced in England as the normal teaching style for new surgeons.

How to solve the shortfall has brought about much debate in the past two centuries and even today, because of moral and religious reasons, shows little sign of being resolved.

Museum of London’s new exhibition Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men takes the story back to the early 19th century when gangs raided graveyards at night and sold the corpses to teaching hospitals. People were so worried about being dug once they had been buried that many that those who could afford it invested in iron coffins.

It was big business – selling just one body could be worth the equivalent of a month’s wages. And while the practice was against the law (only the bodies of executed murderers could be used for medical research), punishment was minimal given corpses were not classed as stolen property.

Teaching hospitals benefitted from the trade and it’s said by some that health care standards improved as a result, but when gangs switched to murdering people and these dead bodies were sold for profit, it was clear that something needed to be done urgently. That came in the form of the 1832 Anatomy Act, which gave doctors, teachers of anatomy and medical freer access to donated bodies – bringing the beginning of the end for so-called Resurrection Men.

But the parliamentary legislation wasn’t passed without controversy, something that comes across very strongly in the exhibition as visitors are invited to sit in a mock chamber and hear both sides of the argument debated on a wrap-around video screen. There were those who said it would raise training standards and that patients would benefit. And you also hear those that claimed the poor that would be affected most as they were less likely to be given a proper burial.

The Act was passed and the critics were proved right – 99.5% of bodies during the first 100 years of its operation were from asylums, workhouses and hospitals. In that time 57,000 corpses were supplied.

And it wasn’t until the Human Tissue Act of 2004, introduced in the wake of the Alder Hay Children’s Hospital scandal – where organs were retained from 350 infants from 1988 to 1995 without consent, that the Anatomy Act was fully superseded.

It’s a fascinating exhibition, but don’t go if you are squeamish as there are numerous skeletal remains on show (the inspiration came from a discovery in 2006 of dissected corpses from 1825 to 1841 in the cemetery of the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel).

As visitors leave the exhibition they are left with the question of whether the needs of medical science should override personal wishes. But that’s not something that can be answered during an afternoon visit – it’s a debate that’s gone on for 200 years and one that will continue for some time yet.

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