Tag Archives: doctors

Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men

 Royal London Hospital 1752

The newly built London Hospital in fields outside London at Whitechapel c.1752


Readers who are within travelling distance of the Museum of London have one week left in which to visit the fascinating Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men resulting from excavations at the London Hospital in 2006. I should declare an interest since one of the joint authors of the book of the exhibition, and a major collaborator thereon is my daughter Natasha Powers.

You may wonder what this has to do with a website such as A Parcel of Ribbons, devoted principally to the history of eighteenth century Jamaica. However, when transcribing Wills with Jamaican connections I have come across several references which link to the whole issue of enlightenment science, medical training and body snatching in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

There is a great contrast during this period between an Enlightenment interest in medical research and the fears of those whose religious beliefs required that their bodies should be available intact for the Day of Judgement.

One very early reference to donating a body for medical research occurs in the Will of Robert Fotherby, who owned 90 acres in the parish of St Catherine Jamaica. Written in 1749, he requested that:

My Body I direct and order to be opened (if I die in London) by Mr Hawkins the Surgeon that now lives near Smithfield Barrs To whom for his Trouble I give and bequeath Three Guineas but if Mr Hawkins should not be alive or not in the Way at the Time of my Death to intitle himself to the above mentioned Three Guineas by performing the aforesaid Operation Then my Will is that my Body shall be opened by one of the Surgeons of Saint Bartholomews Hospital to be paid for his Trouble at the Discretion of my Executor hereinafter named but if it please God I should die in the Country then my Body to be opened by any Surgeon in the Neighbourhood where I die as my Executors shall think proper it being my earnest desire and determined Resolution that my Body should be opened before it is put into the Coffin that the Cause of my Death as much as is possible may be discovered for the Benefit of Mankind and for other Reasons therefore in case my Executor hereinafter named shall neglect or refuse to Comply with my Request and Order aforesaid she shall forfeit and pay to the Poor of the Parish where my Body shall be buried without having been first opened the Sum of One Hundred Pounds to be paid to the Church Wardens of the said Parish at the Time of my Death within one Month after my Burial but for proof of my Body having been opened before put into the Coffin the Oath of the Surgeon that performed the Operation or any Credible Witness that see the Operation performed shall be sufficient and such Oath I do direct and order to be made before some Magistrate before my Body shall be Interred and such Affidavit or Copy of such Affidavit to be delivered to the Church Warden or Church Wardens (or left at the Dwelling House of one of them) of the Parish where I shall be buried to satisfy them that they can have no Demand on my Executor on account of my Body having been buried without having been first opened according to my Directions as aforesaid

Fotherby did not die in London, but at Haselbech in Northamptonshire. From a subsequent Chancery suit it appears that an autopsy was carried out as he had requested. His wish to benefit those who came after him by anything that could be learned from ‘opening’ his body is admirable and in this he was ahead of his time.

A much later reflection on the fear engendered by the body snatchers occurs in the Will of Mary Cooke, a sister of the Jamaican composer Samuel Felstead, who died in Bethnal Green in London, in 1843 at the age of ninety-three. Her Will was written in 1829, before the changes brought about by the passing of the Anatomy Act in 1832, when fears of body snatchers were rife, and as a result she requested burial in an iron coffin.

You can see an example of such a coffin (some of which had triple locks !) at the exhibition, and if you cannot go, you can see it in the background to the interview with Jelena Becvalac on the exhibition webpage and on YouTube. It appears that such coffins were successful in foiling the attempts of the body snatchers, but were unpopular with those who managed the burial grounds since unlike wooden coffins they did not decay rapidly, reducing the space available for further burials.