As Elizabeth Hurren’s recent work on the use of pauper corpses in teaching hospitals has shown there was a deep seated fear of both the legal and illegal dissection of the dead in Victorian England. For the poor burial was expensive and sometimes unaffordable but the alternative, a pauper burial by the parish, carried a stigma that most wanted to avoid at all costs. Hence the period saw a proliferation of burial clubs; a way of saving for the inevitable and drawing on the support of others in similarly dire straights.
The medical profession struggled to gain the trust of the public in the 1800s and the fear that surgeon might be less than picky about where they got their cadavers to do their research upon contributed to an underlying reluctance of the working classes to embrace the doctor in the way we are used to today.
This case, from 1871, illustrates some of these concerns and sheds light on a practice that is often hidden from history.
In October 1871 John Connor (a ‘respectable looking man living in Trinity Square’, near the Tower) approached the sitting magistrate at Southwark with a complaint about Guy’s Hospital. Connor claimed that his brother had been admitted to Guy’s seven weeks earlier suffering from ‘dropsy and some other disease’. Dropsy is more commonly termed edema today and ‘is an abnormal accumulation of fluid in the interstitium, located beneath the skin and in the cavities of the body, which can cause severe pain’. It is not thought to be life threatening but is (and was) uncomfortable.
However, poor Mr Connor’s sibling succumbed to one disease or another because he died in hospital on the 5th October, in the presence of his family. They asked to have his body removed on the same evening so they could make the necessary arrangements for his funeral. However, it seems this did not happen.
The hospital said it was too late to transfer the most that night and promised it would be done in the morning. The Connors accepted this but made a point of saying that they wished that the body was not to be interfered with (I presume they meant not subjected to a post mortem examination). They made a note that notices displayed in the hospital specifically forbade any such dissection of the body wothout the approval of the relatives of the dead.
Imagine their shock then when on receiving the body of their loved one the next day they discovered that he had indeed been subjected to a dissection without their consent. Connor told Mr Benson (the magistrate) that his brother had ‘been cut about from the neck to the lower part of the abdomen’.
He had complained to Mr Steele (the resident medical officer) and had succeeded in meeting with Mr Habershon who had treated his brother at Guy’s. He told them how ‘shamefully’ they had been treated but all he got were denials and obfuscation. The magistrate sympathised with him and said he had heard of similar complaints from other relatives of deceased patients in the hospital. However, there was nothing he (or the law) could do without specific details and the names of those concerned.
The magistrate continued his criticism of the hospital authorities for hiding behind the ‘wealth of the institution’ and stated that he was clear that illegal dissection was being carried out there. Mr Connor thanked him for his time and left, sadly without getting the ‘justice’ he sought.
[From Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, October 15, 1871}