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Dissecting the 1832 Anatomy Act

Updated: Oct 3, 2023

In August last year to mark the 190th anniversary of the Anatomy Act, Highland Archives Community Engagement Officer Lorna Steele-McGinn, met world-renowned Forensic Anthropologist Professor Dame Sue Black to learn more about change in the law.

Before the 1832 Anatomy Act, dissection in Scotland was only permitted on the bodies of convicted murderers who had been hung. This was the outcome of what was known as the 1752 'Murder Act', which stipulated that a convicted murderer should not only be hanged but, after death, "some further terror and peculiar mark of infamy be added to the punishment." Among the possible 'further terrors' was public dissection.

During the late 18th and early 19th century, an increase in the number of anatomy schools and students resulted in increased demand for bodies for dissection. Rather than rely on receiving the bodies of those who had been executed, surgeons sought other means of procurement, including enlisting the services of body snatchers. Around this time, an increasing number of graveyards featured mort safes (a heavy iron grate placed over the grave) and mort houses where relatives could watch over the graves of the recently deceased. The fear surrounding body snatching was certainly a contributing factor to the Anatomy Act. If the anatomists had a better supply of bodies, then there would be no market for them to be resurrected and sold.

When the Anatomy Act of 1832 was passed, it gave surgeons and their students legal access to bodies from workhouses, hospitals and prisons which remained unclaimed 48 hours after death. While this did make more bodies available, it now seemed as though the crime was being poor. Although the act made it possible for a person to donate a next of kin’s body for medical purposes, it was mostly unclaimed bodies that were used and people were still not choosing to donate their own or their relatives.

A real change in people's perception of dissection came as a result of the Second World War. As Dame Sue Black explains, bequeathing a body was framed as part of the war effort, aiding the training of future doctors who would help the fount line. This reframing has changed how we view dissection from a punishment after death, into a gift given to the next generation of surgeons.

You can watch the entire discussion on High Life Highland's YouTube channel or in the video below.

An accompanying blog post was produced by the Highland Archives which provides viewers the option to view the documents discussed in closer detail.

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