Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection men

The exhibition at the Museum of London highlights the problems over the past 250 years that doctors have faced when training new doctors.  Training surgeons and doctors needed as much practice as possible so that when they moved on to treating live patients, they could do the operations as skillfully and as quickly as possible.

Training in speed was especially important with the lack of anesthetics in the early 19th century.  Good surgeons performing amputations could amputate a leg in less than a minute and experts such as Robert Liston who could amputate a leg in 30 seconds.  This need for corpses, to train on, is what sparked body snatching.  Body snatching was done by ‘resurrection men’, who would disinter a corpse and sell it to a medical school for dissection or anatomy classes.

The exhibition was based around the archaeological excavation of a forgotten burial ground, found in 2006 at the Royal London Hospital.  Here they discovered evidence of dissection and autopsy on the corpses which were discovered.  Also they found the corpses of other animals such as dogs and monkeys, which had been used to compare anatomies and possibly used due to the lack of human cadavers.

In 1832 the government introduced an act which allowed doctors to dissect donated corpses and use bodies which were unclaimed by relatives or friends.  The excavation revealed the extent of use of the unclaimed bodies on which trainees practiced dissection.

Today, over 1000 cadavers are needed for teaching each year, and demand still exceeds supply. Many modern medical schools now use models or modern computer generated dissections, with mostly traditional universities keeping dissection on their courses.

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