Dissecting the female body: VPFA 2013


No man should marry until he has studied anatomy, and dissected at least one woman.’
(Honore de Balzac, 1826)

Citing Balzac in the keynote speech which opened last week’s VPFA annual conference (on Bodies), Leicester University’s Dr Elizabeth Hurren offered an unexpected insight into nineteenth-century gender relations through the lens of the 1832 Anatomy Act.

Dr Hurren has worked for the past seven years on the history of the Act, introduced by Parliament to remedy a shortage in specimens for dissection. With only the corpses of hanged murderers officially available for research, surgeons and medical students prior to the 1830s depended on an underground trade in stolen bodies to obtain the necessary quantity of bodies for their slabs. As discussed in Ruth Richardson’s Death, Dissection and the Destitutethe attendant grave-robbing scare reached its height in the 1820s, culminating in 1828 with the trial of Burke and Hare, two suppliers to the Edinburgh surgical trade who had taken to bumping off victims on demand. (Surreally, there’s a 2010 comedy film about their exploits, starring Andy Serkis and Simon Pegg. One for a future blog post, perhaps?) Spurred on by the Burke and Hare controversy (and by the Italian Boy case of 1831), Parliament succeeded in passing controversial legislation that awarded surgeons rights to the bodies of ‘unclaimed paupers’ who had died in workhouses or hospitals for the poor.

Whilst the Anatomy Act largely succeeded in putting an end to grave-robbing, it did so at considerable cost to nineteenth-century class relations. Along with the New Poor Law of 1834, the legislation seemed effectively to be criminalising poverty. Religious beliefs which saw dissection as a desecration that would jeopardise future heavenly resurrection had informed its association with execution for murder; a punishment that would extend into the afterlife. Suddenly, being poor and isolated sentenced one to the same fate.

The implications of the Anatomy Act for the working-class are so grave and so evident that it is not surprising to find them at the heart of most critical work on the subject; and indeed, Dr Hurren’s paper did focus mainly on this topic. One of the more distressing (if unsurprising) revelations was the repeated violation of the requirement that corpses sold for anatomy should be ‘unclaimed’. With a very brief window before decomposition set in, the official six-week waiting period was simply unsustainable, and Dr Hurren described a painful instance in which a daughter’s attempts to claim her father’s corpse for burial were thwarted by the news it had already been dissected. Another surprise was the extent to which bodies were re-traded; once broken down into their constituent parts, limbs, organs and heads might be further re-sold, so that prices on individual specimens could rapidly increase, with totals rising to around £200-300.

While Dr Hurren’s paper added a great deal to my general understanding of the way in which the Anatomy Act was enforced, it also prompted further consideration of the gender implications of the Victorian anatomical marketplace. Specifically, Dr Hurren noted the relative scarcity of female specimens for medical dissection. Outside of London (as many medical schools were), male corpses outnumbered female at a rate of three to one. Similarly, corpses in the provinces tended to be older, suffering from muscle wastage and providing a less useful indication of the anatomy of a doctor’s likely (living) patients. The statistic I found most shocking of all (and which, in my horror, I failed to write down – so apologies for the absence of verifying detail) was that for most of the nineteenth century, medical students at Oxford dissected no female bodies at all. As Dr Hurren observed, most of them went on to become general practitioners: shining a particularly penetrating light on the frustrations of Victorian women patients.

Combined with this absence of real female bodies for research was a popular culture in which even the female dead were depicted as youthful, beautiful and pristine. In popular images such as J.H. Hasselhorst’s Dissection Directed by J. Ch. G. Lucae (1864) (which was used to promote the medical education offered at St Bart’s), anatomists encounter female bodies of a type that might well allure the enquiring young medical man.

dissection 2

Exposed on the table in a halo of heavenly light, the corpse invites the leisurely inspection of a group of serious (and well-dressed) medical men. Gabriel Von Max’s Der Anatom (1869), at the head of this post, is another example. Looking more asleep than expired, the woman at whom Von Max’s anatomist gazes is utterly lacking in the blood, guts and gore of the anatomy room.

When even the women on anatomist’s tables were depicted as being so lovely and so clean, the anxiety that informed John Ruskin’s notorious revulsion at the sight of the body of his naked bride is at least more readily understood. Ruskin’s is an extreme case, of course, well-known because it seems both so comic and so sad; and many young men must have encountered more realistic representations of (if not real-life examples of) the naked female form before they wed. But the shortage of female corpses on the Victorian anatomy market provides a suggestive contribution to the complex set of circumstances which saw women and their bodies so exoticised and misunderstood. Perhaps Honore de Balzac was right.