Learning to Live amongst the Dead

On 8 October 1793, James Williams—a 16 year-old surgical student—described his living quarters in John Hunter’s anatomy school to his sister living in Worcester. He wrote:

My room has two beds in it and in point of situation is not the most pleasant in the world. The Dissecting Room with half a dozen dead bodies in it is immediately above and that in which Mr Hunter makes preparations is the next adjoining to it, so that you may conceive it to be a little perfumed. There is a dead carcase just at this moment rumbling up the stairs and the Resurrection Men swearing most terribly. I am informed this will be the case most mornings about four o’clock throughout the winter. [1]

The realities that awaited the surgeon-in-training during the 17th and 18th centuries were grim. Death was inescapable. In the letters, diaries and medical notes from the period, we constantly come across descriptions of ‘decaying flesh’, ‘rancid corpses’ and ‘putrid stenches’.

For the experienced surgeon, the sight and smell of a corpse was hardly shocking. For a young man entering a dissecting theatre for the first time, the experience could be overwhelming. So much so that Lorenz Heister recommended ‘Students in Surgery should not only be furnished with Strength of Body, but constancy of Mind [so] that they remain unmolested and unmoved by Stench, Blood, Pus and Nastiness that will naturally occur to them in their Practice’. [2]

Nonetheless, there were plenty of young men who entered training only to discover they did not have the ‘constancy of Mind’ required to endure the realities of the profession. In 1821, the French composer, Hector Berlioz, quit his surgical training, observing: ‘It seemed to be the utter reversal of the natural conditions of my life—horrible and impossible’. John Keats, similarly, changed careers after spending too much time amongst putrefied bodies and the ‘death-rattles of the dying’. [3]

But there were worst things than quitting. Most frightening were those who did not have the stomachs for dissection but became surgeons despite their obvious lack of anatomical knowledge. One such man was the 18th-century surgeon, William Lucas. Those who attended him during an operation observed that he was ‘rash in the extreme, cutting amongst most important parts as if it was only skin, and making us always shudder from apprehension of his opening arteries, or committing some other errors’. [4].

It is not a surprise that some students went to great lengths to avoid the dissection theatre. The majority of bodies had been buried for days, or lain out in preparation for burial, and would have therefore been in a semi-advanced state of decomposition. Dissecting these corpses was a dirty business: some wore aprons to absorb the bodily fluids that would pour out of the fetid bodies as they were opened up, but many students wore their everyday clothes, making no attempt to keep clean. All day, they carried around with them the stench and filth of their anatomical lessons.

Learning from the dead was both unpleasant and dangerous. As bodies begin to decompose, infectious organisms multiply. In 1788, Charles Darwin—son of Erasmus Darwin of Lichfield—cut his finger while dissecting the dead body of a child. A few hours later, he began suffering from terrible headaches and later started haemorrhaging. By the next day, he was dead. [His name was later given to a nephew who went on to make it famous]. This would be the fate of many surgical students in the 17th and 18th centuries.

William Cruikshank—anatomist and lecturer—did not believe the dangers involved in dissection would deter young men from the study of anatomy. He wrote:

We all know that fevers may be caught at hospitals, from the living body; yet physicians do not complain of want of pupils; and he would be a sorry student, who would not do his duty at the risk of his health. [5]

Cruikshank was right. Surgery—as a profession—was growing in popularity and with it came the growing demand for more bodies. By the beginning the 18th century, the body trade was booming. Resurrection men could demand as much as 10 guineas (£10.50) per corpse. Put into context: the weekly wage of a master tailor or carpenter in the first half of the 18th century was approximately 30 shillings (£1.50), whereas an East End silk-weaver working 12 hours a day might only earn 5-10 shillings a week (50 pence). [6]

For those with the strength and the cunning, body-snatching was a very lucrative business. For the surgeons and medical students who benefited from their thievery, it was a necessary evil.

1. Qtd in Jesse Dobson, John Hunter (1969), p. 178.
2. Lorenz Heister, A General System of Surgery (1745), p. 24.
3. Qtd in Druin Burch, Digging up the Dead (2007), p. 201.
4. Ibid., p. 200.
5. P. Clare, An Essay on the Cure of Abscesses by Caustic (1779), p. 120
6. Sarah Wise, The Italian Boy: Murder and Grave-Robbery in 1830s London (2004), p. xiv.

3 comments on “Learning to Live amongst the Dead

  1. […] eclectic collection of posts spans the gamut from the realities of the dissecting theatre to the concepts of death in the 19th century,  to the horrors of vivisection on living animals. […]

  2. […] eclectic collection of posts spans the gamut from the realities of the dissecting theatre to the concepts of death in the 19th century,  to the horrors of vivisection on living animals. […]

  3. […] fracture,  the grisly history of the barber pole,   about the  17th and 18th century anatomy training of surgeons and a 18th century forensic case. She also wrote a post on cutting out bladder stones at the group […]

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