I was watching an old film over the weekend – Burke and Hare starring Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis. Whilst mostly true, it wasn’t 100% factually accurate, but it had a great cast, a wonderful script and was a highly entertaining couple of hours. In telling the story of these two quite notorious criminals, it also explored a crucial early part of medical and surgical education.
Until the Anatomy Act 1832, medical students could only practice dissection – or observe anatomy lectures – using the corpses of convicted murderers, usually whisked straight from the gallows to the mortuary or lecture theatre. This meant that demand far exceeded supply, as lectures were often twice weekly and there was still the practice that the students needed to obtain their degrees. This led to the rise of the Resurrection Man, who would often hover around graveyards and dig up freshly buried corpses to provide to medical schools that didn’t ask too many questions – and a startling number didn’t.
Burke and Hare were quite successful in the resurrectionist business, and had a decent line in providing Sir Robert Knox with bodies for dissection before his students. However, after nearly getting caught by the Edinburgh Militia, they decided that a safer way was to actually murder some of the derelicts and drunks they found wandering the back alleys of the city, on the grounds that they were unlikely to be missed, and hand these bodies over instead. Unfortunately for the pair, someone was missed and they were arrested and tried.
The Resurrection Men were put out of business by the Anatomy Act 1832, which allowed any unclaimed body to be taken for dissection – this included any hanged criminal, occupants of workhouses and basically any corpse left in the street. The medical schools were all licensed and there was no need to rely on murky dealings at the back door.
The 1832 Act has subsequently been repealed and replaced with the Human Tissues Act 2012, which now sets out the full procedures for any kind of post-mortem medical dissection. That said, the twilight world of the resurrection men will remain one of the more interesting aspects of medical history for many years to come.