A Genius By Way of Stupidity
Colin Dickey’s recent Roundtable offers a fascinating glimpse into the politics of human dissection in early modern Europe through the unique situation in nineteenth-century Vienna. There, dissection was not only allowed but increasingly supported by the medical establishment and the state. At Vienna’s General Hospital, the poor could receive health care free of charge, but only on condition that if they died, their bodies would be delivered over to the medical school. Reading Dickey’s account, I could not help but think of that intrepid English defender of dissection, Jeremy Bentham.
Bentham tied the question of dissection directly to utility, the use of the dead for the living. He was, after all, the founder of Utilitarianism, a program for legislative reform guided by the pursuit of the “greatest happiness for the greatest number.” Inspired by a widespread eighteenth-century view that human beings are at birth blank slates, Bentham reduced human motivation to the maximization of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. Happiness comes in measurable units, he insisted. A “felicific calculus” could turn the science of government into a form of ethical bean-counting. Bentham’s hard-nosed rationalism scandalized some of his contemporaries. But by the early 1800s he had attracted talented followers like James Mill and his son John Stuart Mill. Years later, in the mid-1850s, Charles Dickens would parody utilitarianism in Hard Times, when the bullying schoolteacher Mr. Gradgrind declares, “Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life.” Around the same time as Dickens, Karl Marx described Bentham as “a purely English phenomenon With the driest naïveté he takes the modern shopkeeper as the normal man. Whatever is useful to this queer normal man, and to his world, is absolutely useful.” Bentham, Marx decided, is “a genius in the way of bourgeois stupidity.”
Marx misses what is so special about Bentham—unsentimental pragmatism mixed with eccentricity worthy of Monty Python. Indeed, in his tireless defense of dissection, one could easily imagine Bentham in London’s streets calling to the good citizens, “Bring out your dead.” As he reports, the utility of the dead was a favorite subject at his table, spread (one hopes) with slabs of over-cooked British beef to put flesh on the argument. In 1824, Bentham’s good friend Dr. Thomas Southwood Smith published a tract on the “Use of the Dead to the Living.” A devoted Benthamite, Southwood Smith evaluated the theme in utilitarian terms. What could be more basic to happiness than good health? Who could be more essential to good health than a doctor? And what is more important to a doctor than anatomical knowledge?
Bring Out Your Dead
How could doctors gain that knowledge without a steady supply of cadavers? To illustrate his point, Southwood Smith looked at Scotland, which had backtracked in its laws. He recalled that some fifty years earlier, Scottish medical schools had an abundant supply of corpses, and medical knowledge surged. How lamentable then that “In the 19th century the good people of Scotland, that intelligent, that cool and calculating, that most reasonable and thinking people, have thought proper to return to the worst feeling and the worst conduct of the darkest periods of antiquity.”
With only a tiny trickle of executed criminals available for dissection, Southwood Smith reports that students at Edinburgh Medical College were obtaining degrees after a year or two of rote memorization for their exams. Afterwards, they shipped out to the East and West Indies or into the army and navy, and instead of healers, they became “instruments of cruelty and murder.” Incidentally, Charles Darwin began medical study at Edinburgh in 1825, but gave it up, partly because he couldn’t stand the sight of blood. He always regretted never having perfected the skill of dissection. Edinburgh Medical College was also the home of Dr. Robert Knox, whose pursuit of medical knowledge could not be sated by the limited supply of executed criminals, so he turned to the body snatchers William Burke and William Hare, who were convicted of murdering seventeen people to keep up with Knox’s demand. Burke was hanged in January 1828 and fittingly dissected.
The scandal of Burke and Hare was still four years in the future when Southwood Smith proposed that British society must overcome its religious and sentimental scruples and free up the supply of the dead. Consistent with the practices in Vienna, Southwood Smith urged that the poor could solve the problem. But the modest contract that allowed the Viennese poor to exchange healthcare against their bodies was not what Southwood Smith had in mind. He proposed that unclaimed bodies in hospitals and all those who die in poor-houses, work-houses, and houses of correction be delivered forthwith to medical schools. Aware that some of his readers might feel uneasy with this handling of society’s unfortunates, he cautioned that if doctors couldn’t practice on the dead bodies of the poor, they would use those of the living.
Better Than a Statue
Jeremy Bentham had a longstanding commitment to this issue. He had left his body for science in 1769, when he was only twenty-one. In doing so, he transformed the cruel and forlorn fate of society’s unwanted into a noble and freely given gift. Prompted by Southwood Smith’s tract, he worked even harder to reform the laws governing the provision of bodies for dissection. Ever the fertile mind, he landed upon a further project. In his essay “Auto-Icon,” Bentham expressed great admiration for the Maori custom of preserving the heads of venerated ancestors and displaying them in the home as exemplars of virtue. The value of this was clear to him, and he could only wonder that a primitive people had come to this utilitarian principle all on its own. How fitting it would be for Britain to embrace such a rational use of the dead. For one thing, money need not be wasted on expensive statues when every man could be “his own statue.” And it was not just a question of cost-cutting. An Auto-Icon was even better than a statue: how could a copy ever compete with the original? Auto-Icons could be produced in full-body or head only form, and they could be liberally distributed—in private family chambers, in churches, in public buildings. Indeed, “if a country gentleman had rows of trees leading to his dwelling, the Auto-Icons of his family might alternate with the trees.” Varnish would weatherproof the faces.
Swayed by this excellent idea, Bentham amended his Last Will in 1824. Bequeathing his body to his “friend Doctor Armstrong of Russell Square lecturer on Physic, to be by him caused to be anatomized in the most public manner,” he went on:
“As to the head & rest of the skeleton, it is my desire that the head may by preparation after the New Zealand manner be preserved, & the entire skeleton with the head above it & connected with it, be placed in a sitting posture, & made up into the form of a living body, covered with the most decent suit of clothes, not being black or gray, which I may happen to leave at my decease.” Then, turning his thoughts to the ongoing cause of Utility, he wrote: “And whereas it has occurred to me that some of my friends, in whose opinion my labours in the service of mankind have not been altogether without success, may, in the view of giving increase to that success, & of cherishing their mutual harmony, be eventually disposed to meet at a club in commemoration of my birth & death, my desire is, that in that case order may be taken by my executor, for such my skeleton seated in an appropriate chair, to be placed, on the occasion of any such meeting, at one end of the table, after the manner in which, at a public meeting, a chairman is commonly seated.”
Michael St. John Packe, author of The Life of John Stuart Mill, picks up the story upon Bentham’s death in 1832.
“On his own instructions he was not buried; his body was carelessly draped in a sheet, and carried in a piano-dealer’s van to the Webb Street School of Anatomy, where it was the first corpse voluntarily offered for dissection. Amidst angry peals of thunder, Dr. Southwood Smith made an impressive oration to the assembled friends and students before going to work with a knife. Bentham’s skeleton was then dressed in his usual clothes and given a waxwork head by Mme. Tussaud. He was seated in a chair, “Dapple” [his cane] was thrust into his gloved hand, and for two successive years he presided over a dinner of his disciples, until the macabre effect so told upon the guests that the reunions had to be discontinued. In the library of University College he may still be seen, in a smart glass case, with his real head between his feet: every so often he is taken out and shaken and punched to keep the moths at bay.”
And in the library of UCL he remains, sitting upon his chair in the cabinet of his own making. Bentham’s head was poorly preserved and a wax one was made to replace it. About ten years ago, I met an assistant professor of archaeology at University College London who was “in charge” of Jeremy Bentham. By that time Bentham’s head had been locked in a vault, for it had become something of a college prank to steal it. Though the head always came back, university officials had decided this wizened football best belonged behind bars.
Where the Dead Play Tennis
Today, it seems we have completely shed the religious and ethical scruples that long restrained the use of the dead. Of course, fascination with the dead is age-old, from viewing the dead in funereal rites, to presenting executed criminals, to the long queues visiting the Paris morgue in the Belle Epoque. And the display of anatomical specimens, pickled in jars, reaches back into the early modern period and enjoyed a heyday in Victorian-era collections such as Philadelphia’s Mutter Museum.
Public encounters with the dissected human body have been rarer occurrences. That makes the international phenomenon of Body Worlds something of a signal shift in the cultural history of the uses of the dead for the living. Gunther von Hagens’ displays of plasticized human bodies were controversial when they first began to appear. Where did these bodies come from? Was this disrespectful of the dead? Initial opposition was tamped down by pointing to the educational benefits. With the growing sophistication of plastination, von Hagens has been able to expand the range of postures struck by his flayed and splayed corpses. Interestingly, controversy and queasiness returns. After all, posing a tennis-playing corpse in mid-swing shatters the neutrality of a body placed at the disposal of science. It sets up the dissected body as the macabre mirror of the animated, living body in its range of activities. It disturbingly edges the dead body toward the status of a work of art, measured at least in part by the resemblance of the copy to the original. Except here, the copy is the original. (Or dare I say, an Auto-Icon?)
Jeremy Bentham certainly would be a lot easier to look at if there had been plastination in his day. But his disciples probably would have found his presence unbearably creepy nonetheless. As for Gunther von Hagens, his website reports that he is currently designing the first anatomy curriculum in the United States that will use plastinated specimens in lieu of dissection. That should handsomely extend the profits of this greatest of all body snatchers. And it fits nicely the trend in many leading medical schools away from dissection and toward the use of pre-dissected bodies. “Digging through fat, getting around bone, getting under skin—these days that’s considered too much work,” reported Robert Trelease, director of integrative anatomy at UCLA, in a 2003 Wired magazine article. Then again, the real wave of the future may be virtual dissections, with a virtual scalpel in a virtual hand cutting into 3D images of flesh and guts. That might be just the ticket for generations of future doctors whose manual dexterity stems from Game Boys, not Lego. On the other hand, that doesn’t sound much different than the situation that Southwood Smith lamented in 1824, with medical students learning strictly from books. Then again, in those days, the pictures were not interactive. Maybe that’s the difference.November 20, 2009