Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men

A couple of days ago I went to the ‘Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men’ exhibition at The Museums of London which was largely based around and inspired by their archaeological excavation of the 19th Century burial ground of the London Hospital which took place in 2006.


I must apologise as this post is not very likely to discuss much poo. So anyone hoping for an in-depth discussion of my bowel movements will be disappointed. You have my apologies. There is more likely to be talk of dead bodies and possibly surgical practice in the 18th and 19th Century.

In an attempt to move away from always talking about poo (as fun as that can be) I will endeavour to discuss some of my other interests which may have fallen by the wayside somewhat over the past few years since my life was filled with poo since developing UC. As hard as I try poo always seems to float into the conversation!

Moving on I am interested in archaeology and history in general. My undergraduate degree was in archaeology at Southampton and I am currently still in a period of interruption of study from my masters course in environmental archaeology at UCL. I am sure most people reading this are aware of this as I think it is mostly my good friends taking the time to be kind enough to read these rambling blogs. However if you don’t know me and are reading this I thought it best to provide some context (ah context you are so important to life especially archaeological life!). I also thank you for taking the time to read my words.

So let us talk about archaeology or more precisely the archaeological exhibition at the Museum of London about the practice of dissection during the 18th and 19th Century and an excavation of the London Hospital burial grounds. I really enjoyed the exhibition I had been meaning to go to it for a while as it is only a temporary exhibition and finishes on 14th April 2013. It had opened at the end of October 2012. So when it first opened I was not really in any position to be able to travel into Central London and spend several hours walking round an exhibition and take in all the information. If you have the time I would recommend you try to see it before it closes in April.

I would say the exhibition is largely divided into four main sections. Firstly it addresses the major issue of the supply of bodies for trainee doctors and surgeons throughout the 18th and 19th Centuries. This often involved grave robbing and in some extreme cases murder.

The second section concerns the surgical practices and equipment of these time periods. As someone who has had three surgical procedures in my life I am very glad that I had my surgery in 21st Century and not at any other point. I did previously know about the horrors of surgery during the 18th and 19th Centuries. With the lack of understanding of practices such as keeping instruments clean and washing your hands before cutting off someone’s leg for example. I had not seen examples of surgical equipment from that period for some time and it puts things in perspective. One of the doctors mentioned in the exhibition a Mr John Scott was said to have been satirised in 19th Century for his unusual habit of keeping his instruments impeccably clean! I may have had some problems with my abdominal surgeries but I survived them and they were able to occur in the first place.

Parts of the exhibition put me in mind of some of the moral or human rights issues that seem to plague the history of medicine and whether or not the ends justify the means. I do not want to get too bogged down in these issues as I think it could lead to an internet argument and really hate them, so much always seems to get lost in translation so to speak. I am not sure if the ends do justify the means, but it concerns the very difficult issue of weighing the countless number of people saved against those which suffered. The practice of body snatching and grave robbing to supply bodies for doctors and surgeons to practice on was not morally acceptable but it did allow a lot to be learned about the human body which later generations benefitted from. The debate over the Anatomy Act 1832 which is also discussed in the exhibition addresses this issue of trying to balance the benefits against the costs and who is likely to see the progress and who will suffer.

The third section which I found most interesting is mainly concerned with the excavation conducted by the Museum of London Archaeology in 2006. This looked like it was a very interesting excavation to be involved in especially if you are interested in excavating human remains (following accepted archaeological method and means of documentation of course). I even bought the excavation report from the museum shop. I have only had a quick flick through it, it looks very interesting. Hopefully it will not be one of the many books which sit on my shelf and I don’t actually read!

an image from the excavation report showing some of the graves being excavated

an image from the excavation report showing some of the graves being excavated

The excavation section of the display mainly consists of some of the human and animal remains which were excavated from the site. There are animal remains also from the excavation as these are thought to have been used for vivisection and practicing dissection. The human remains which are on display clearly show signs of dissection or disease. There is a very interesting example of a body which was severely affected by syphilis…well I found it interesting. Several skulls shown have been cut in various ways for examination of the brain or the muscles of the face and show signs of trepanning. Some hospital equipment is also included such as examples of the ceramic objects that the patients would have used for food such as bowls or for waste such as bed pans (more poo and piss). The examples of the equipment of the time such as the surgical or dissecting tools are well preserved, curated and archived rather than objects from the excavation. These would have been valuable items and not very likely to have been buried with the bodies.

some examples from the excavation report of some of the bones which were dissected.

some examples from the excavation report of some of the bones which were dissected.

The last section is a little bit of a mixture of information. There is an audio and video display consisting of extracts of the minutes from the Parliamentary debate over the Anatomy Act of 1832 (the audio is obviously actors from the present, I say that more so that people don’t think I believe that Parliamentary debate from 1832 was being recorded rather than thinking someone else would think that). The Act was repealed by the Anatomy Act 1984 which was, in turn, repealed by Human Tissue Act 2004. After this there is a video display of 3D technology which is currently one of the teaching methods for doctors and surgeons. This is only a very short video but the technology looks very impressive, it seems like it is being promoted as a way of being able to view and interact with all aspects of the human body without actually needing a body to be there. There is a timetable of the major social, surgical and legal events from the 18th Century to the present day.

I would advise anyone who is vaguely interested in the history of medicine, anatomy, British history or archaeology to try to go to this exhibition before it closes. It is not perfect but no museum display is. My only major criticism is where audio is used it is very loud. I find it quite hard to read labels relating to satirical cartoons of the period or surgical equipment when a mockney voice is blaring out the story of the Italian Boy Murder or upper class voices are debating the pros and cons of the Anatomy Act. That is my own personal critique and I am sure if the audio volume was lower others would criticise it for not being able to hear what was being said.

Sorry I don’t have any pictures from the exhibition. Pictures were not allowed in the exhibition and not feeling in a particularly rebellious mood I followed the rules…much to my shame.

So I’ve been able to go to an archaeological related museum display which should be the first of many cultural events or activities I can get back to now. Hopefully I will continue to be more active. I definitely want to see the David Bowie exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Bowie is a lifetime in his own legend, I have been remiss in not listening to him much recently. To my shame I have still not listened to the whole of his new album. The singles so far have been great and the videos which have been made for a couple of the songs are great. Bowie is doing what he does best in making great music and not resting on his laurels and trying to rehash old ideas and rely on previous achievements.

The newest album which I have listened to of late which I have really enjoyed is the new Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds album Push the Sky Away. This is a wonderful and quite mellow album most of the time. One of my favourite songs is Higgs Boson Blues, having said that there isn’t a bad song on the album. If you are a fan of  Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds I would definitely recommend it and if you are not then I feel sorry for you.

Just to add a little health related bit to the end of this already overly long post. I am still trying to build up my strength. I have been going to the gym, I am not a massive fan of gyms but it is good to get out of the house and I am able to go at quite times. My stamina is still pretty rubbish, this is highlighted most by my attempts at swimming. I try to do ten lengths of a 25 metre pool. At the moment I need to have a little rest after each length. Hopefully I will be able to build up to the same level as my mum who does sixty lengths of a 25 metre pool.


Also the second rehearsal of my band was completed the other weekend and we have got two songs which we need to get into a proper sound proofed rehearsal space so we can complete them and we have several other songs in the works. Hopefully an open mic night soon!

Sorry for the lack of poo talk. Hope all are well.



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