Some time ago I noted in a blog post about Bart’s Hospital that the hospital’s methods of obtaining bodies for anatomical study would bear further scrutiny, ideally as a PhD thesis (not by me, I hasten to add). Last weekend, an article appeared in the Guardian regarding Don Shelton’s latest paper in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, where he posits that surgeons William Hunter and William Smellie had women at their full-term of pregnancy murdered or ‘burked’ to provide bodies to further their obstetric studies. He’s right in that the numbers don’t add up, and that it is rare for a woman to die at full-term but without having begun labour, which seems to be their favoured choice of subject. However, whilst he has made a valuable study and some very salient points, I stall at his inference of murder. If you care what I think (and why should you?), this is why I don’t agree.
There is no argument that both Smellie and Hunter were unscrupulous when it came to acquiring subjects for study, or for Hunter’s medical ‘museum’ of freakery. Hunter in particular behaved appallingly over the corpses of various subjects he had his eye on, bribing family and friends to bring the body to him after the final illness, whatever the wishes of the person in question. Most famously, he paid the friends of Irish giant Charles Byrne five hundred pounds to supply him with Byrne’s body, despite the fact that Byrne hated Hunter and specifically requested that he be buried at sea to avoid the anatomist’s knife <this is an error on my part – it was actually John Hunter, William’s younger brother who did this>. Being utterly ruthless and sanctioning murder are not the same. At one point, Hunter noted against Smellie’s study of twins in utero that Dr MacKenzie, Smellie’s assistant had procured and dissected the body without Smellie’s knowledge ‘was the cause of a separation between them, as the leading steps to such discovery could not be kept secret’. This indicated that the woman had been obtained by methods not sanctioned by Smellie and that he did not want to be associated with such methods. Hunter and Smellie were rivals medically, and both were aware that the whole business of procuring subjects would not bear scrutiny in polite society, but it doesn’t mean they were turning a blind eye to the possible murdering of pregnant women.
Shelton examines the mechanisms of burial and arrives, quite rightly, at the conclusion that most ‘resurrected’ bodies were obtained from the poorhouses, either pre or post burial. He also asserts that people in a paupers’ cemetery were placed in large pits and left uncovered until the pit was full. Nowhere in any of my studies have I found this to be true. Yes, destitute people were placed in communal graves in burial grounds throughout the city, but they were placed there with a bit of dignity and covered over with earth, even if others were later to be added to the grave. They were also prayed over by the incumbent. The pragmatism displayed by Georgian Londoners in the face of death and illness is not the same as being callous or unfeeling.The rarity of death in women at full-term is a fact that cannot be argued with. However, in this we are largely influenced by modern statistics and the success of modern obstetric medicine, but pre-eclampsia is a dangerous condition still common now, affecting up to ten percent of pregnancies. Characterized by very high blood pressure, pain in the chest, damage to vital organs through raised blood protein levels, seizures and possible cerebral haemmorhages, there was no effective treatment for this condition in the 18thC. Sufferers describe the attendant pains of pre-eclampsia as unbearable, and medicate accordingly which may have resulted in overdose. If untreated, pre-eclampsia can prove fatal to both mother and child, and in Georgian London, would have meant many more mothers died when heavily pregnant, but without loss or damage to the body that would prevent an anatomist making a detailed study of the gravid uterus.
My last point is upon Shelton’s light treatment of the ‘resurrectionists’. Obtaining corpses for anatomical study wasn’t an obvious career choice, granted. It would require a strong stomach, both morally and literally and a network of connections with like-minded individuals. Nevertheless, it was a job, perhaps coupled with another part-time occupation, but one taken seriously by those who engaged in it. They would know the poorhouses and those who supervised, they’d watch to see who came and went. Scoliotic, palsied, deformed or otherwise ‘freakish’ subjects were all required, as well as pregnant women. No doubt palms were heavily greased for word of a death. I don’t believe for a moment that resurrectionists simply disinterred corpses ‘randomly’. Most were probably never even buried. Vultures may be abhorrent creatures, but they let nature do the killing.From the study of Smellie and Hunter’s extant works, it appears they obtained 32 full term corpses in 13 years. I believe this number of women were available through natural death, but their bodies were obtained through fairly creepy and suspect supply chains, rather than murder. The woman pregnant with twins was clearly too much for MacKenzie to resist, and I am sure there were indeed murders associated with the study of anatomy, but I disagree with the condemnation of Smellie and Hunter as serial-killers and the sensationalism is both unpleasant and inaccurate. The inference that the men also worked on women rendered unconscious but still alive has no basis in fact whatsoever.<to further clarify this point: women were not ‘anatomized’ whilst still alive, although there are cases where C-sections were undertaken with little hope of the mother’s survival. This does not make the operating doctor a monster.> Smellie and Hunter were at the top of the medical tree, doing valuable work. Associated with them were a large number of ‘worker bees’, from the artist Jan van Rymsdyk, who produced the astonishing images in the gallery to the poorhouse supervisor who shuffled the bodies out of the back door, to the grave-digger who after dark disinterred a body he had only just covered over. For my money, Rymsdyk is the scary one: he sat with these bodies for hours, studying them in minute detail and there is an adoring beauty to his renderings of these unfortunate women and their children: the sitting posture of the gravid woman, with her knees covered by a blanket, but her internal organs displayed by the neat flaying of the anatomist, and the baby curled snugly inside her, a stray wisp of its hair escaping the womb. There is a liveliness and humanity to the drawings that eludes the photographer’s lens in post-mortem photography.
It is too easy to look back at history and attribute cruelty and inhumanity to people who lived in a time when death was a closer companion than it is now. As I hope this blog has shown, the 18thC is an interesting enough place to spend time even without sensationalism.
- In the Eye of the Beholder: My 18th Century
- Mystery Object #2