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Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 46.2 (2003) 312-314
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Death, Dissection and the Destitute. 2d ed. with New Afterword. By Ruth Richardson. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2000. Pp. 453. $20 (paper).
In this second edition of Death, Dissection and the Destitute, the social historian Ruth Richardson addresses the social, political, and economic impact of dissection and body snatching on Reform Law and class structure in the United Kingdom from the early 1800s to the inception of the welfare state in 1946. The three sections of the main book seem to be unchanged from the first edition, published in 1987 by Routledge Kegan Paul. The second edition differs from the 1987 edition by the addition of a fourth section—an Afterword—in which the author presents limited arguments that the socioeconomic and political issues for organ transplantation in the late 20th century have many parallels to those prevalent during the body-snatching period of early 19th-century Britain.
The first section, entitled "The Body," examines the cultural and religious attitudes of the English populace towards the corpse. In general, the people demonstrated deep horror and aversion to anatomic dissection because of (1) ancient folkloric beliefs that the soul hovered around the corpse for a few days until the final ritual of burial was complete; (2) Christian religious concerns about having an intact body to be reunited with the soul at the time of the Last Judgment; and (3) deep shame of association since, from the time of Henry VIII, only hanged murderers were given over for anatomic dissection.
In the second section, "The Act," the social, political, and economic factors in the initiation, formulation, and passage of the 1832 Anatomy Act are examined and discussed in great detail. From the mid-1700s, removal of bodies from graves—"body snatching"—had become widespread in order to satisfy the demands of medical students and surgeons for bodies to dissect in their pursuit of the new scientific approach to surgery. The Act outlawed dissection of condemned murderers and replaced them with "unclaimed bodies" derived from the poor denizens of public hospitals, poorhouses, and workhouses. The general social and economic consequences of the passage and implementation of the Anatomy Act in the United Kingdom are reviewed in the third section, "The Aftermath."
The Anatomy Act represented the first social legislation in Britain that established a regulatory office administered by a central national governmental agency. Because of lack of enforcement powers and personnel, the socially "enlightened" rules and regulations of the Anatomy Act were circumvented from the time of their passage until the 20th century by hospitals, medical schools, physicians, and students in their quest for bodies for dissection among the sometimes deceived poor.
Death, Dissection and the Destitute contains a wealth of information on the [End Page 312] attitudes of the British people towards death and anatomic dissection. In addition, the political, social, and economic ramifications of poorly considered legislation are well illustrated, and Richardson's book will be among the major references on these subjects in the future. Richardson is to be commended for her meticulous examination of contemporary social information resources, such as newspaper articles, political speeches, broadsheets, committee reports, and legislation, although some of these sources have limited reliability because they contain peoples' opinions and biased interpretations of the situations rather than hard facts.
But this reviewer is disappointed that the 13 years between the two editions were not used to glean the records, reports, invoices, board meeting minutes, and patient and employee rosters of the anatomy schools, hospitals, churches, and workhouses, in order to present a more balanced view of the medical advantages of anatomic dissection. As the author points out, this gleaning is tedious work, and the records may be incomplete; however, those features have not hampered other social and economic historians. The 25-page Afterword is disappointing because it seems to be a highly subjective, incompletely researched polemic about alleged transgressions and atrocities in modern-day donor selection and organ procurement. There is no question that such atrocities as sale of organs by poor people and the harvest...