Medical schools go back many centuries, but from the middle 1700s on, their number multiplied as medicine gradually became more professional and more scientific. One problem was that medical students could only learn about the human body by dissecting one.
Bodies for dissection were in extremely short supply. The legal source was condemned criminals and suicides. Many Christians believed that the dead would waken from their graves to greet Christ on the day of the second coming. To do that, the body had to actually be in the grave. A death sentence that included handing over the body for dissection added a special horror to the sentence.
But legal sources provided far too few bodies. This was an era when there was no means of preserving a body for more than one dissection. There was no refrigeration, and preserving through chemical means did not yet exist. Parts could be preserved in alcohol, assuming the students did not drink the alcohol.
The only available source was graveyards. Bodies for dissection needed to be as fresh as possible, so the newly buried were best. Since decay was rapid, the chill of winter was the preferred time. Sometimes medical students robbed graves, but more often it was left to professional grave robbers who were ironically named ‘Resurrection men.”
Bodies were sold at so much each. The transactions would necessarily be conducted in the dark. Cities then had little in the way of lighting at night, and little in the way of police, although there might be a few night watchmen who carried a club and a lantern. Sometimes there were riots against medical dissection. The 1787 Doctor’s Riot in new York City had to be put down by militia, and killed perhaps 20 people.
A grisly footnote to the trade occurred in 1828 in Edinburgh, in Scotland. William Burke and William Hare murdered 16 people and sold their bodies to an anatomist. Burke was hanged, and his body was medically dissected. His skeleton was on display at the Edinburgh medical college, where it remains today, almost 200 years later.
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