The body snatchers: The grisly source behind some of the most extraordinary medical discoveries



23:53 GMT, 13 October 2012

It was one of the most gruesome finds of recent years – 262 skeletons or parts of skeletons in unmarked graves at the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel, East London.

The men and women all died in the 1820s and 1830s. And all bore the crude hallmarks of early dissection.

The 2006 discovery by medical archaeologists confirmed an unpalatable truth. The basis of much modern medicine was learned in the 19th Century from corpses taken from cemeteries by body-snatchers.

Kill and cure: Body-snatchers at work in the film Burke and Hare

Kill and cure: Body-snatchers at work in the film Burke and Hare

‘Thanks to dissection on stolen bodies, doctors grasped some of the basics around coma, stroke and epilepsy,’ says Dr Elizabeth T. Hurren, medical historian at the University of Leicester.

The remains form the centrepiece of an exhibition at the Museum of London called Doctors, Dissection And Resurrection Men.

Here we show how they helped us understand anatomy and the breakthroughs that paved the way for treatments used today.


Tools of the trade: A set of early 19th Century dissecting hooks

Tools of the trade: A set of early 19th Century dissecting hooks

The 1752 Murder Act gave anatomists access to the recently executed corpses of murderers.

‘The bodies would be whisked straight from the gallows to an anatomy school, such as London’s Surgeon’s Hall near the Old Bailey,’ says Dr Hurren. ‘They had to be quick because decomposition set in so rapidly.’

The Master of Anatomy – the man organising the dissection – would have invited members of the public to watch, as well as 20 or so fee-paying medical students.

Records from London medical schools show that about 500 corpses were sliced open every year. Surgeons and anatomists needed a steady stream of corpses, and demand vastly outstripped supply.

That meant the rest were stolen from graves. And worse.

‘Highly organised gangs would wait until someone had just been buried and then dig them up at nightfall,’ says Vishy Mahadevan, Professor of Surgical Anatomy at the Royal College of Surgeons.

The grave-robbers were known as resurrectionists. For each body they could earn up to £10 – enough to live on for several months.

‘The cemeteries were so overcrowded, and so many bodies were piled into each grave that the lines of earth between them were extremely thin, allowing passers-by to see the recently deceased,’ says Dr Hurren.

The stolen bodies were delivered to the surgeons, ‘whose motivation was honourable – to improve our understanding of the human body’, says Prof Mahadevan.

But the greed of a handful of resurrectionists prompted much darker deeds. They started killing for bodies.


‘The huge volumes of new surgeons who had trained on dead bodies and had
a greater understanding of human anatomy led to a surge in surgery on
live patients,’ says Richard Hollingham, author of Blood And Guts: A
History Of Surgery.

‘At the time there was experimentation with hypnotism – contrary to
popular belief, patients weren’t generally given alcohol as anaesthetic.
A gag would have been placed in their mouths to stop them from biting
their tongues,’ he says.

‘The pain endured by these patients led to the rapid demand for
anaesthesia, which was first used in 1846 in the form of sulphuric ether
and directly as the result of the resurrectionists.’

Surgeon Robert Liston was the first man recorded as performing an
operation under general anaesthetic on a patient named Frederick
Churchill at London’s University College Hospital.

‘Without anaesthetic, patients often chose to die rather than go under
the knife, knowing that they were going to suffer excruciating pain and
possible death in any event,’ says Hollingham. Before anaesthetic, one
in three patients died during surgery.


Ghoulish: An 1811 caricature of an anatomist

Ghoulish: An 1811 caricature of an anatomist

Tragic James Wilson was one of a string of victims who became a fresh supply of cadavers for surgeons.

James, 18, was a much-liked lad living in the West Port area of
Edinburgh. With a limp and learning difficulties, he was known as Daft

He would go to visit his beloved mother as often as possible, but
one day in late October 1828 he couldn’t find her.

He asked around, and a man named William Hare said he’d seen her and
suggested James come to Hare’s house to wait for her.

There, Hare and
his friend William Burke gave James whisky, waited until he dozed off
and smothered him.

They sold his body to a local surgeon, Dr Knox, for
£10. When some of his students thought they recognised the corpse, Dr
Knox mutilated his face to avoid further suspicion.

Between 1827 and 1828, Burke and Hare smothered 17 people in this way.
Intoxication followed by suffocation prevented the corpse from being
damaged, ensuring a good price from Dr Knox. This method of murder
became known as Burking.

The younger the corpse, the better the price – as internal structures
break down with age – so even children were slain. Hanged for his crimes
in 1829, Burke, was himself sent to an anatomist and dissected (Hare
was offered immunity if he confessed and testified against Burke).

Monro, the surgeon who dissected Burke, is said to have used his blood
as ink. Skin from the cadaver is believed to have been made into wallets
and sold in the streets.

The scandal sparked by the Burke and Hare case, and copycat murders in
East London three years later, led to the Anatomy Act of 1832, ushered
in to stop the trade in stolen bodies. The Act made all unclaimed
bodies from prisons or workhouses available to anatomists, eventually
stopping the resurrectionists.


The operation is now one of the most common in the NHS thanks to Sir Ashley Cooper (pictured)

The operation is now one of the most common in the NHS thanks to Sir Ashley Cooper (pictured)

Sir Astley Cooper developed the operation to treat hernias thanks to
early 19th Century dissections.

The operation is now one of the most
common in the NHS, with more than 100,000 carried out every year.

A hernia is caused by the protrusion of an organ through a hole in the
wall of tissue that contains it, normally part of the intestines pushing
through the muscular wall of the abdomen.

Cooper recognised that to treat a hernia it was necessary to open up the
weakened abdominal wall and push the organ back inside.

He also
realised that each layer of abdominal tissue needed to be individually

The procedure today is very similar to Cooper’s original operation,
although surgeons are increasingly employing keyhole surgery and tend to
use polypropylene – a nylon-like mesh – to strengthen the abdominal

However, a Canadian clinic that specialises solely in hernia repair
still stitches layers of tissue together, just as Sir Astley Cooper did
almost two centuries ago.



Scottish surgeon Sir Charles Bell performed seminal work as an anatomist, thanks to studying cadavers.

His book An Idea Of A New Anatomy Of The Brain is considered by many to be the beginning of clinical neurology.

Bell was arguably the first to distinguish between different types of nerves.

He is best known for first describing Bell’s Palsy – a form of facial
paralysis resulting from a dysfunction of the cranial nerve. It’s
thought to occur as a result of an inflammation.


was Sir Astley Cooper’s dissections of the neck that revealed the
complex arrangement of veins and arteries – including the carotid
artery, the main source of oxygenated blood to the head – that would
lead to the first operation to treat aneurysms.

aneurysm is a balloon-like bulge in a blood vessel, usually an artery,
caused by weakening of the vessel wall. If not treated, the bulge can
burst, leading to fatal internal bleeding.

suggested that an aneurysm in the carotid artery – causing difficulty
swallowing and a hoarse voice – could be treated surgically.

1817, he put his theory to the test and took the extreme step of
cutting into the neck of a living patient and tying off the artery,
leaving blood to flow freely to the brain via other blood vessels.

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William Smellie’s work dissecting the corpses of pregnant women gave a great deal of insight into the mechanism of labour, and things that could go wrong anatomically.

He has been called the father of obstetrics. Until Smellie, only midwives delivered babies, but he made it into a medical discipline and gave it a scientific slant.

He was the creator of the Smellie forceps, which were wooden and curved to the shape of the pelvis.


The ‘resurrectionists’ meant surgeons were able to expand on the work of one of the greatest anatomists – John Hunter, who died in 1793.

His work launched the discipline of vascular surgery. He realised that coachmen, who sat with their legs resting on hard wooden surfaces, suffered from blockages in the blood vessels of their upper legs.

He discovered that if you tied the vessels off at the upper thigh, you prevented them from rupturing. This area – between two muscles in the inner thigh – is called Hunter’s Canal.

‘Of course, then, once you had tied the vessel, the leg had to be amputated,’ says consultant vascular surgeon John Scurr. ‘These days you would either bypass the blockage or use a stent, but such early anatomical discoveries through dissection work allowed these operations to develop. Vascular surgery has saved millions of lives.’

From October 19, book online for Doctors, Dissection And Resurrection Men at