The body snatchers' legacy to medicine By Jane Elliott BBC News health reporter
Some of the greatest discoveries in medical history owe a debt to the art of bodysnatching, that nefarious activity epitomised by Burke and Hare, according to a senior curator at the Royal College of Surgeons. But was it not unethical?
'The Resurrectionists' by Thomas Rowlandson
Few crimes can be as abhorrent as much as body snatching, but it was prevalent in the 18th Century.
The image of freshly dug corpses was not one welcomed by the public, but few of the perpetrators and procurers were caught and, when they were, the punishments were trivial.
Simon Chaplin, senior curator of the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons, London, has new insights into this grisly conundrum.
In a recent speech, he pointed out that some of the great discoveries of medical history took place in the 18th Century - the small pox vaccine, advances in obstetrics, dental surgery and the treatment and detection of venereal disease.
But the era was also characterised by the body snatchers, seedy underworld characters who supplied the hidden corpses needed for dissection to perfect the anatomical skills of surgeons.
Mr Chaplin said people should put the crime into its historic context.
"Why was this gruesome trade tolerated? How did the anatomists persuade their peers to condone, rather than condemn, the noisome business of dissection?"
The most infamous had their skeletons preserved, hung in niches round the hall to serve as permanent moral lessons to the crowds who thronged the gallery
To answer this, he says, it is vital to remember that during the 18th Century London was starting to blossom as a city, its population was burgeoning, but as this happened so grew the need for qualified surgeons to care for the population.
Unlike the other medical cities of Edinburgh, Leiden and Paris, London had no medical university and all the responsibility for training young surgeons fell solely on the shoulders of a relic of the mediaeval city guilds - the Company of Barber Surgeons.
They alone had the rights to the lehappy_bunnyses - the bodies of executed felons and offered little practical help to anatomists.
Even after the creation of a separate Surgeon's Company in 1745, the anatomies were irregular and poorly attended by those who needed to see them, becoming merely a spectacle for the public wanting to see the innards of London's most notorious criminals.
Portrait of John Hunter by Sir Joshua Reynolds
"The most infamous had their skeletons preserved, hung in niches round the hall to serve as permanent moral lessons to the crowds who thronged the gallery," explained Mr Chaplin.
Centuries before the works of Gunter Van Hagens, whose work with human corpses and his public autopsies, shocked the nation, Mr Chaplin said there were a series of grisly exhibitions in the capital.
"One of the least salubrious was Benjamin Rackstrow's museum in Fleet Street, which included waxwork 'anatomical Venuses' and titillating displays of preserved organs."
But these were not the thing for young surgeons wanting to advance their anatomical skills.
A variety of courses offered skills from anatomy to surgery or midwifery, but all needed a detailed anatomical knowledge.
These schools, however, needed bodies, and this is where the snatchers were invaluable.
"The private teachers were not entitled to the bodies of criminals from the gallows," said Mr Chaplin.
"Instead they had to resort to other means to secure a supply of fresh corpses for their lessons.
"This grim traffic was the preserve of the grave-robbers who would deliver their newly exhumed goods under the cover of darkness."
'The Dissecting Room' by Thomas Rowlandson
And for the most part, despite public criticism, the authorities said Mr Chaplin turned a blind eye.
When one surgeon, Andrew Marshall, was caught red-handed with a hamper containing the bodies of two children, he received no sanction.
Another, Thomas Young, was fined just £10 when he was found in possession of a recently deceased inmate from a workhouse.
Mr Chaplin feels much of the leniency lies in the way the surgeons were quick to apply their skills to the treatment of the sick.
"The key attribute of the anatomist - the 'steady hand' and curious eye' were extolled, turning anatomical study from an unsavoury niche discipline into the cornerstone of scientific medicine.
"This was greatly helped by not only their treatment of the sick, but also the effort they put into being open about the benefits of their work, such as the museums which they opened to non-medical visitors as well."
Anatomists like William Hunter, famed for his advances in obstetrics, and his brother John Hunter, created museums to display anatomical preparations.
John Hunter, 3,000 of whose pieces are housed in the Hunterian museum in the Royal College of Surgeons, did much research into dental anatomy; the anatomy of venereal disease and work on gunshot wounds including disproving the theory that gun powder was poisonous.
"Even King George III and Queen Charlotte were moved to commission a series of preparations from John Hunter, to be used for teaching the children of the Royal Family the art of anatomy," said Mr Chaplin.
The Hunterian Museum, which is situated in 35-43 Lincoln's Inn Fields, is open to the public from 10-17.00 Tuesdays to Saturdays and admission is free.