- Anatomical Dissection in Enlightenment England and Beyond: Autopsy, Pathology, and Display ed. by Piers Mitchell
During their heyday in the nineteenth century, anatomical collections played important roles in medical teaching. Some collections, such as the Gordon Museum at King’s College London, are still frequently consulted by students, but many such collections are under increasing threat. The Musée Orfila in Paris, the largest anatomical museum in France and one of the largest in Europe, recently closed its doors. Yet, as this volume demonstrates, these collections still have much to tell us.
In addition to anatomical collections, archaeological work in the former burial grounds of several hospitals, workhouses, and anatomy schools across England is revealing new evidence of the extent of medical intervention on living and dead humans at these sites. Analysis of the skeletons from these sites has revealed a wealth of information about human health and disease between about 1750 and 1900. Television shows such as Bones have made the techniques of forensic anthropology well known (and Kathy Reichs, the author of a standard text in the field, is also the author of the novels on which the show is based). However, much of the work described in Anatomical Dissection in Enlightenment England and Beyond relies not on sophisticated technology but on painstaking analysis of cut marks and careful reconstruction of disarticulated bones. Many of these bones show evidence of postmortem dissection and student practice of such techniques as trepanation. The bones at some sites are numerous enough to enable statistical analysis of disease and trauma.
The argument of this volume is that the new evidence provided by archaeology, together with anatomical collections and the printed and manuscript sources of historians, can give us new insights about how people lived and died in the past, and about the history of medicine and medical teaching. The articles in this volume, written by biological anthropologists, medical historians, and curators of anatomical collections, look at the healthy and diseased human body from a number of perspectives. The editor, Piers Mitchell, is well known for his work in osteoarchaeology, the archaeological study of bones, and this book focuses mainly on bones as evidence.
Over half the volume is devoted to archaeology. The remainder mainly concerns anatomical collections; the last essay describes a case in which a museum specimen, case notes, and the handwritten letters of the victim all survive.
In his introductory chapter, Mitchell clearly lays out what is known and not known about the teaching of anatomy and pathology in this period. Written evidence, laws, and anatomical preparations give some idea of anatomical education and research. But the evidence has been strongly slanted toward London, and it is not clear how the content of anatomical collections changed over time, owing to new theories or new methods of preparation. Written sources exhibit various biases; in addition, while much of what we know of past preservation techniques comes from such sources, they often give little indication of how or when such techniques might have been used.
The archaeological chapters vary widely in length, content, and style. The best of them, such as Gaynor Western’s account of the Worcester Royal Infirmary, are [End Page 287] richly contextual while clearly explaining the osteological evidence. Western is especially good at explaining the ambiguity of such evidence: it is not always possible, for example, to distinguish a therapeutic amputation from one that took place after death for training purposes. Similarly, the chapter on the London Hospital by Louise Fowler and Natasha Powers is exemplary in combining historical records with archaeological work. Because of the nature of the evidence, this approach is not always possible, but it is very revealing when done well. Some of the archaeological chapters are quite technical; however, many of them make use of what librarians and public historians call “gray literature”—unpublished or locally produced reports—and therefore are valuable in summarizing research that would otherwise be inaccessible.
Simon Chaplin’s excellent chapter, “Dissection and Display in Eighteenth-Century...