William Hogarth

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Where did the bodies come from?: A Timeline

In 1550, Sister Luyt, who had been condemned to death as a criminal, became the first women to be publicly dissected in Amsterdam.

In 1555, the Dutch government officially sanctioned the practice of dissecting criminals that were condemned to be executed.

In the mid 16th century, Henry VIII of England gave the College of Barbers and Surgeons the right to take the bodies of four hanged criminals every year. This was to be the only legal source of cadavers for the next two centuries.

In 1632, Rembrandt paints "The Anatomy Lesson of Doctor Tulp" which depicts the dissection of the criminal Aris Kindt.

By the late 1700's, anatomy had become so popular that the number of bodies officially allotted for the purposes of dissection became insufficient. Graverobbing became a common way of securing bodies for dissection. Many anatomy schools paid others to do their dirty work.

In 1788, thousands of angry people stormed a New York hospital where the cadavers were being dissected by medical students, after it was discovered that the bodies had been stolen from a local graveyard. This led to three days of mob violence, and came to be known as the "Doctor's Riot."

In 1789, New York passed an "Act to prevent the Odious Practice of digging up and removing for the purpose of dissection, dead Bodies interred in Cemeteries or Burial Places." This act stipulated that criminals sentenced to death for a conviction of murder, arson or burglary, could be used for dissection.

In 1825, Illinois passed as "Act to Prevent the Disinterment of the Dead."

In Edinburgh, in 1827, a poor man died in the boardinghouse of William Hare and William Burke. Rather than burying the body, Hare and Burke sold it to anatomists, at a profit of about 7 pounds. Lured by the prospect of easy money, Hare and Burke turned to murder, suffocating sixteen people and selling them to an anatomy school.

After the body of Mary Docherty was discovered in Burke's house on a cold winter's day in 1828, there was a public outcry. Burke was tried and hung in 1829. His body was dissected and publicly displayed. Hare fled town never to been seen again.

Robert Knox, the anatomist who had paid for the body of Mary Docherty, kept silent during Burke's trial. A riotous mob burned down Knox's house and he was forced to flee as well.

In 1832, the English Parliament passed the Anatomy Act in order to increase the number of bodies that were legally available for dissection. The law stated that if a body went unclaimed by relatives for more than 48 hours, it could be seized for the purposes of medical dissection.

Although the Anatomy Act provided a legal alternative to body-snatching, the people who ended up on dissection tables were frequently paupers or patients in mental asylums. This act also revoked the law allowing murderers to be dissected.

After World War II, there was a sharp increase in the number of bodies that were donated by individuals specifically for the purpose of medical dissection.

In 1968, the United States passed the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act, which made it possible for individuals to donate their bodies or to become organ donors after death, and governs how donations can be used.

This organization manages body donations in Illinois.
Anatomical Gift Association of Illinois (AGAI)
1540 S. Ashland Ave. Suite 104
Chicago, IL 60608
telephone: 1-800-734-5283
website: www.Anatomical-gift.org


"Uniform Anatomical Gift Act". Wikipedia.

"Anatomy". Robert A. Freitas Jr., Nanomedicine, Volume I: Basic Capabilities, 1999.

"Dissections & Corpse Taking". Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. PBS.

"From bodysnatching to bequeathing." Victoria Walker. Student BMJ.

"Peoria vs. Anatomist Cooper." John L. Wilson, M.D. The Stanford University School of Medicine and Predecessor Schools: An Historical Perspective.


"Introductory Anatomy". Dr. D.R. Johnson, Centre for Human Biology, University of Leeds.

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