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QM staff and students discover the impact of bodysnatching at The Royal London Hospital

Monday 4 February 2013

Staff and students from the School of Biological and Chemical Sciences have contributed to a major exhibition at the Museum of London, ‘Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men’, which explores the excavated burial ground at The Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel.  

In 2006, the Museum of London’s excavation revealed some 262 burials. In the confusing mix of bones was extensive evidence of dissection, autopsy and amputation, bones wired for teaching, and animals dissected for comparative anatomy. Dating from a key period – that of the Anatomy Act of 1832 – the discovery is one of the most significant in the UK, offering fresh insight into early 19th century dissection and the trade in dead bodies.

The exhibition brings together human and animal remains, anatomical models and drawings, documents and original artefacts, and reveals the relationship between surgeons pushing forward anatomical study and the bodysnatchers who supplied them; and the shadowy practices prompted by a growing demand for corpses.

Dr Steve Le Comber, Lecturer from SBCS, and two Biomedical Science undergraduates, Inva Hoti and Ambika Kumar, participated in a film project for the exhibition. The film, ‘Body Beyond Death’, is the final piece of the exhibition and explores how the excavation and discovery of evidence of dissection and autopsies at The London encourages viewers to debate the Anatomy Act, reflect on medical ethics and cultural attitudes today, and ask what questions still remain.

Inva commented on being part of the exhibition: “I really enjoyed being part of the film project – it’s a bit different to everyday lectures! It was enlightening to question the moral decisions about organ and body donation as we see the other side of it in our studies, the theories and practical aspects of dissection. I have always wanted to be considered for organ donation, but after being part of this project, I would consider donating my body for medical research projects as I think it’s really important.”

Ambika reflects on the moral questions discussed in the film: “I’m a Hindu so, while I’m not against donation itself, it really did make me think about what I would do from a religious perspective as Hindus are meant to be cremated in full, so if my heart was missing for instance, that would be something I’d need to think twice about.”
The film, funded by the Wellcome Trust, was produced by the Museum of London’s Community Collaboration team with Quiet Voice Productions and a group of young people from the East London area, who developed the project ideas and helped conduct the interviews and filming.

One of the many benefits of QM is our London location, and the close collaborations we maintain with other London institutions - such as the Natural History Museum, Kew Gardens, Institute of Zoology and the Museum of London. The Museum of London houses the Centre for Human Bioarchaeology (CHB), which curates around 20,000 archaeologically derived human skeletal remains, from the Neolithic to the post-Medieval period. CHB staff give guest lectures on SBCS's first year Human Anatomy module, and regularly supervise final year research project students from the School.

Steve explains how he and the students came to be involved in the project: ‘When the Centre for Human Bioarchaeology began putting together an exhibition looking at the history of anatomy teaching in London - and at the excavation of the burial site at the Royal London – they asked if we could get involved. They filmed me – along with Inva and Ambika, two of our current Biomedical sciences students – talking about how valuable human cadavers are for teaching anatomy. It was a great experience for the students, and SBCS was delighted to be associated with such a fascinating exhibition.’
Both Ambika and Inva are considering studying Medicine after completing their Biomedicine degrees; but they are keeping their options open and looking at careers and other postgraduate study.

The exhibition, ‘Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men’ runs at the Museum of London until 14 April.

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