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History of modern anatomy

Warning: this article contains some out of date information. It appears to be based on an unknown source written in c. 1900.

The history of modern human anatomy in Great Britain begins with the time at which the dissection[?] of the human body became part of the training of students of medicine, and this is one of the greatest debts, though by no means the best recognized, of the many which medical science owes to that remarkable man William Hunter.

Before his time the anatomy professors of the most celebrated schools both at home and abroad used one or at most two subjects to illustrate their courses of lectures, and were in the habit of demonstrating the performance of surgical operations not on human bodies but on those of lower animals. Few students dissected the human body, because for such dissection they had no opportunities. The English law, since the time of Henry VIII, allowed only the bodies of persons executed for murder to be dissected, and the supply seems to have been sufficient for the humble needs of the time.

The reformation of this antiquated and imperfect system took place in 1747, when Hunter established complete courses of anatomical lectures and opened a school for dissection. The practice of dissection grew so rapidly that by about 1793 there were 200 regular anatomy students in London, while in 1823 their number was estimated to be about 1000. Of course the supply of murderers was not enough for all these students, and the very fact that only murderers were allowed for this purpose made people bitterly hostile to the bodies of their relations and friends being dissected. In accounting for the great aversion which there has always been from dissection in England, it should be remembered that, although capital punishment was the penalty for very many offences at the beginning of the 19th century, only the bodies of murderers were handed over to the anatomists.

When once the absolute necessity of a surgeon's having a good knowledge of anatomy was realized, bodies had to be procured at any hazard, and the chief method was to dig them up as soon as possible after their burial. This practice of exhumation[?] or "body-snatching" on a large scale seems to have been peculiar to Great Britain and America, and not to have been needed on the continent of Europe. In France, Italy, Portugal and Austria no popular objection was raised to the bodies of friendless people, who died in hospitals, or of those whose burial was paid for by the state, being dissected, provided a proper religious service was held over them.

In Germany it was obligatory that the bodies of all people unable to pay for their burials, all dying in prisons, all suicides and public women should be given up. In all these countries the supply was most ample, exhumation was unknown, and the cost of learning anatomy to the students was not high. In Great Britain the earlier exhumations seem to have caused very little popular concern; Hunter, it is said, could manage to get the body of any person he wanted, were it that of giant, dwarf, hunchback or lord, but later, when the number of students increased very rapidly, the trade of "resurrection man" became commoner, and attracted the lowest dregs of the vicious classes.

It is estimated that in 1828 about 200 people were engaged in it in London alone, though only a few gained their entire livelihood by it. In the first half of the 18th century, and for some time afterwards, the few dissections which were undertaken were carried out in the private houses of medical men. In 1702 a rule was passed at Saint Thomas's hospital[?] preventing the surgeons or pupils from dissecting bodies there without the express permission of the treasurer, but by 1780 this rule seems to have lapsed, and a definite dissecting-room was established, an example which was soon followed by Guy's hospital[?] and Saint Bartholomew's hospital[?].

In the early years of the 19th century the number of students increased so rapidly that a good many private anatomy schools grew up, and in 1828 we find that the total list of London dissecting rooms comprised those of Guy's, London, St Bartholomew's and St Thomas's hospitals, the Webb Street school[?] of Mr Grainger, the Aldersgate school[?] of Mr Tyrrell, the Windmill Street school[?] where Caesar Hawkins[?] and Herbert Mayo[?] lectured, and the schools of Messrs. Bennett, Carpue, Dermott and Sleigh. These schools needed and, it seems, obtained nearly 800 bodies a year in the years about 1823, when there were nearly 1000 students in London, and it is recorded that bodies were even sent to Edinburgh and Oxford.

When it is realized that the greater number of these were exhumed, it is easy to understand how hostile the public feeling became to the body-snatchers or "resurrection men," and also in a modified form to the teachers of anatomy and medical students. This was increased by the fact that it soon became well known that many of the so-called resurrection men only used their calling as a cloak for robbery, because, if they were stopped with a horse and cart by the watch at night, the presence of a body on the top of stolen goods was sufficient to avert suspicion and search.

It is in many places suggested, though not definitely stated, that the Home Office authorities understood how absolutely necessary it was that medical students should learn the details of the human body, on which they would be called to operate, and that the police had instructions not to interfere more than was necessary with the only method by which that education could be supplied, however unlawful it might be. So emboldened and careless did these body-snatchers become, and so great was the demand for bodies, that they no longer confined themselves to pauper graves, but took the remains of the wealthier classes, who were in a position to resent it more effectually; often they did not even take the trouble to fill in the graves after rifling their contents, and, in consequence, many sextons, who no doubt had been bribed, lost their posts, and men armed with firearms watched the London burial-places at night.

The result of this was that the "resurrection men" had to go farther afield, and their occupation was attended with considerable danger, so that the price of a body gradually rose from L. 2 to about L. 14, which seems the maximum ever paid. In addition to this heavy sum the anatomical teachers had to pay the fines of the exhumers when they were caught, or to support their families when they were imprisoned. By 1828 the annual supply of bodies had dropped to about 450, and about 200 English students were forced each year to go to Paris for their anatomical instruction. There they could get a body for about seven francs and could also be taught by English anatomists who settled in that city for the purpose.

As early as about 1810 an anatomical society was formed, to impress on the government the necessity for an alteration in the law, and among the members we find the names of John Abernethy, Charles Bell[?], Everard Home[?], Benjamin Brodie[?], Astley Cooper[?] and Henry Cline[?]. It was owing to the exertions of this body that in 1828 a select committee was appointed by the government to report on the whole question, and to the minutes of evidence taken before this body the reader is referred for further details.

The report of this committee led to the Anatomy Act[?] of 1832, but there can be little doubt that its passage through the House was expedited by the recent discovery and arrest of William Burke[?] and William Hare[?], who, owing to the extreme difficulty of procuring subjects for dissection in Edinburgh and the high price paid for them, had made a practice of enticing men to their lodgings and then drugging and suffocating them in order to sell their bodies to Dr Robert Knox[?]. Hare turned king's evidence but Burke was executed. (See MacGregor's History of Burke and Hare, 1884, Lonsdale's Life and Writings of Robert Knox, 1870).

Many further details connected with the condition of anatomy, especially in Dublin, before the passing of the Anatomy Act, will be found in Memoirs of James Macartney[?] by Professor A. Macalister, F.R.S.

The bill to legalize and regulate the supply of subjects for dissection did not pass without considerable opposition. In 1829 the College of Surgeons[?] petitioned against it, and it was withdrawn in the House of Lords owing to the opposition of the archbishop of Canterbury, but in 1832 a new Anatomy Bill was introduced, which, though violently opposed by Messrs Hunt, Sadler and Vyvyan, was supported by Macaulay and O'Connell, and finally passed the House of Lords on the July 19, 1832.

This is the act which governs the practice of anatomy in the British Isles up to the present day, and which has only been slightly modified as to the time during which bodies may be kept unburied in the schools. It provides that any one intending to practise anatomy must obtain a licence from the home secretary. As a matter of fact only one or two teachers in each institution take out this licence and are known as licensed teachers, but they accept the whole responsibility for the proper treatment of all bodies dissected in the building for which their licence is granted.

Watching over these licensed teachers, and receiving constant reports from them, are four inspectors of anatomy, one each for England, Scotland, Ireland and London, who report to the home secretary and know the whereabouts of every body which is being dissected. The main clause of the act is the seventh, which says that a person having lawful possession of a body may permit it to undergo anatomical examination provided no relative objects; the other clauses are subsidiary and detail the methods of carrying this into effect. In clause 16, however, the old act of Henry VIII is repealed and the bodies of murderers are no longer to be given up for dissection after execution.

There can be little doubt that this act has worked well and with a minimum of friction; it at once did away with body-snatching and crimes like those of Burke and Hare. No licensed teacher now could or would receive a body without a medical certificate and a warrant from the inspector of anatomy, and, when the bodies are buried, a proper religious service, according to the creed professed during life, is provided. The great majority of bodies are those of unclaimed poor in the workhouse infirmaries, but a few are obtained each year from the general hospitals. Occasionally a well-to-do person, following the example of Jeremy Bentham, leaves his body for the advancement of science, but even then, if his relatives object, it is not received.

The ample supply of subjects obtained by legitimate means which the anatomy act provided was followed by the opening of anatomical schools at all the great London hospitals and the universities, with the result that anatomical research was stimulated and textbooks embodying the latest discoveries were brought out. It is wonderful, however, how much descriptive anatomy was taught in the days before textbooks were common and how much of what is essential to the study of surgery and medicine the students knew. In looking through an old book of anatomical questions and answers dated 1812, one is struck by the fact that anyone working through them with the body would probably pass an average modern anatomical examination today.

The various phases which anatomy in the British Isles has passed through have also been experienced in America, though it is difficult to compare the two countries owing to the fact that each state in the Union makes its own laws as to dissection, and that these vary considerably. The first anatomy act worthy of the name was that of Massachusetts, and was passed in 1831, one year before the British act. There is reason to believe, however, that, in some states, all the evils of body-snatching existed up to the end of the 19th century.

In some more enlightened states, such as Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, the modern acts are in advance of the British in that they are mandatory instead of permissive, and their compulsory nature is found rather to reduce than to increase public opposition to dissection. A study of the history of anatomy in the United States during the 19th century furnishes an instructive lesson on the futility of attempting to suppress dissection by legislation and on the serious and sometimes terrible crimes to which any such attempt naturally leads. It also teaches that, when unclaimed bodies must be given up and must be treated reverently and buried decently, there is less friction than when public boards have the right of arbitrarily refusing to allow their unclaimed dead to be used for the service of the living.

In all the important countries of Europe, with the exception of Russia and Turkey, anatomy acts exist. They almost all differ from the British act in being mandatory instead of permissive; in other words, certain unclaimed bodies must be given up to the schools of anatomy. As a rule these come from the general hospitals, but sometimes, as in Germany, Austria and Sweden, suicides are received and form a considerable part of the whole number. Even where executed criminals are available they nowadays form a negligible contribution, but the unclaimed bodies of people dying in prison are provided for in the French, Belgian, Norwegian, Swedish, German and Italian regulations, and in Paris they form an important element of the supply.

In Russia several attempts to gain an anatomy act have been made, but have always been opposed by those in authority, and there is good reason to believe that bodies are procured by bribing hospital and mortuary attendants. It is said that the army contributes a large percentage of the total number. In Turkey no facilities for dissecting the dead body exist, as the practice is against the Mahommedan religion; the German pathologists in Turkey, however, insist on making post mortem examinations. In the British colonies anatomical regulations vary a good deal; sometimes, as in New South Wales, the act is founded on that of Great Britain and is permissive, but in Victoria the minister may authorize the medical officer of any public institution supported wholly or in part by funds from the general revenue to permit unclaimed bodies to be dissected, provided the persons, during life had not expressed a wish against it. This act in its working is equivalent to a mandatory one, since the power of refusing bodies is not left in the hands of, in this respect, uneducated poor law guardians.

In the early years of the 19th century Sir Charles Bell's work on human anatomy is by far the most important in the British Isles. He wrote the article on the nerves in his brother John Bell[?]'s work on the anatomy of the human body, as well as his own classical works on the anatomy of expression, the hand and the arteries; but his chief work was the discovery of the difference between motor nerves[?] and sensory nerves[?].

Sir Astley Cooper[?] brought out his beautifully illustrated monograph on hernia in 1807. Besides these, the Edinburgh school had contributed the systematic treatises of Andrew Fyfe[?], John Bell, the third Monro and John Gordon. In 1828 appeared the first edition of Quain's Anatomy, written by Jones Quain[?]. This monumental work, which is still among the very first of English textbooks, has run through ten editions, and is of even greater value to the teacher and researcher than to the medical student, because of its excellent bibliographies and the way in which it has been kept abreast of modern morphological knowledge by its various editors.

Hardly any of the original work now remains. In 1858 another famous text-book on systematic anatomy appeared, written by Henry Gray[?], and this has always been particularly popular with students both in Great Britain and in America; it pays more attention to the surgical applications of anatomy than to the scientific and morphological side, and has reached its sixteenth edition.

The Cyclopedia of Anatomy and Physiology, edited by Dr Robert Todd[?] from 1835 to 1859, which contained articles on both human and comparative anatomy, is now somewhat out of date, but did much for the advancement of the science when it appeared.

In 1893 a text-book written by several authors and edited by Henry Morris[?] appeared. It has run through three editions and is especially popular in America. The latest English systematic work of first-rate importance is the splendid compilation edited by D. J. Cunningham (1902) and written, with one or two exceptions, by pupils of the veteran anatomist Sir William Turner[?]. It is dedicated to him and will long serve as a memento of the work which he has done in training anatomists for the whole of the British empire.

Besides these systematic treatises, many dissecting manuals have been published. The earliest were the Dublin Dissector and the London Dissector; others still in use are those of G. V. Ellis, C. Heath, D. J. Cunningham, and J. Cleland and J. Mackay. In 1889 Professor A. Macalister published a book on anatomy, which combined the advantages of a text-book with those of a dissecting guide.

In America the English text-books are largely used in addition to that edited by F. H. Gerrish. There is a special American edition of Gray.

Many systematic works on modern anatomy have come from Germany. J. F. Meckel, J. C. Rosenmuller, C. F. Krause, G. F. Hildebrandt, J. Hyrtl, H. Luschka and A. Meyer have all published works which have made their mark, but by far the most important, and, as some consider, still the best of all anatomical text-books, is that of F. G. J. Henle, professor of anatomy in Gottingen, which was completed in 1873. The beautiful illustrations of frozen specimens of the body brought out by W. Braune added a great deal to the student's opportunities of learning the relations of the various structures, and are largely used all over the world. Rudinger's Anatomy also contains many plates showing various sections, but the most complete text-book in the German language is that by Prof. Karl von Bardeleben of Jena; this is in eight volumes and contains notices of the latest literature on descriptive and morphological anatomy by the most prominent German anatomists. In addition to these W. Spalteholz and C. Toldt have brought out valuable atlases. In France J. Testut's and Poirier's anatomies, both of great excellence and beautifully illustrated, are the ones in common use.

There are two epoch-making dates in the history of modern English anatomy besides that of the passing of the Anatomy Act in 1832. The first of these is 1867, when the first volume of the Journal of Anatomy and Physiology appeared. This afforded a medium for English anatomists to publish their original work, besides containing valuable reviews and notices of books and work published abroad; it has appeared quarterly without a break since that time, and was long under the immediate direction of Sir William Turner.

The second date is 1887, when the Anatomical Society of Great Britain and Ireland was founded through the exertions of Mr C. B. Lockwood. It meets three times a year in London and once, in the summer, at some provincial school. It numbers some one hundred and fifty members, and enables anatomists from the whole British empire to meet one another and discuss subjects of common interest. Its first president was Prof. Murray Humphry of Cambridge, and its official organ is the Journal of Anatomy and Physiology.

No account of modern anatomical work would be complete without drawing attention to the great mass of special periodical literature containing the records of original work which are being published. It is said that some three or four thousand articles on anatomy appear in six hundred journals each year. To mention a few of these, in addition to the British Journal of Anatomy and Physiology[?] there is an American Journal of Anatomy[?], the French Bulletin et memoires de la societe anatomique[?], and La journal de l'anatomie et de la physiologie[?], and the German Internationale onatschrift fur Anatomie und Physiologie[?], Anatomischer Anzeiger[?], Waldeyer's Archiv fur Anatomie und Physiologie[?], Schwalbe's Zeitschrift fur Morphologie und Anthropologie[?], Gegenbaur's Morphologisches Jahrbuch[?], edited by Ruge, and Merkel's Anatomische Hefte[?].

Unfortunately the outlook of anatomy in Great Britain is not altogether satisfactory. The number of subjects for dissection has since 1895 been steadily diminishing, especially in London. This is due partly to the modern system of insuring lives for small sums and so decreasing the number of unclaimed bodies, and partly to the fact that, owing to the permissive nature of the British Anatomy Act, several boards of guardians will not allow even unclaimed bodies to be used for dissection and for the teaching of operative surgery. It is not popularly understood that a dearth of bodies means not only a check to abstract science, but a serious handicap to medical education, which must react more upon the poor than upon the rich, since the latter can afford to pay for the services of medical men educated abroad, where no difficulties are placed in the way of their learning fully the structure of the body they have to treat in disease.

See also: History of anatomy



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