The medical advances that we enjoy today would not have been possible without the use of cadavers to learn anatomy.
In fact, in the United States, the study of anatomy legitimized the medical field and set it apart from homeopathic and botanical studies. The American Medical Association — the largest association of physicians and medical students in the U.S. — was actually founded on the idea that the “true science” of medicine was based entirely on an education via human dissection.
But this education based on human dissection and anatomy was in place long before people could legally donate their bodies to science. Not surprisingly, this area of medical research has a rather interesting past.
The dissection of human bodies actually dates as far back as the 200s BCE, though the practices then were wildly different than what they are in modern times. These dissections were largely forbidden and culturally taboo, but there are many documents that indicate the practice still happened in secret.
Late 1700s, Early 1800s
In the U.K., scientists once again began the practice of dissecting the dead in the early 1800s, but at the time the only legal means of getting a corpse was if the person in question had committed a heinous crime and was already sentenced to death and dissection by the courts.
While this made sense morally at the time, it meant that scientists and surgeons only had access to around 55 cadavers each year, because that’s approximately how many people were being sentenced to capital punishment. This wasn’t nearly enough to meet the demand of approximately 500 cadavers per year for all the medical schools.
Because of the high demand of cadavers for research, body snatching became a very lucrative business model. Despite being punishable by death in 18th-century Europe, body snatching was a very popular profession.
Body snatchers became quite good at their craft during this time. They used wooden spades to dig up the fresh graves because they were quieter, and made sure not to steal any jewelry as they would be charged with a felony if caught with it.
But a large part of the success that body snatchers had was their partnerships with surgeons and scientists, who needed the cadavers in the first place.
One such surgeon was John Hunter — a Scottish man who moved to London in 1748 to work alongside his brother William in anatomy school. During his time studying with his brother and on his own, as well as practicing as a surgeon, Hunter helped improve the understanding of:
- Human teeth
- Bone growth and remodeling
- Gunshot wounds
- Venereal diseases
- The functioning of the lacteals
- Child development
- The separateness of maternal and fetal blood supplies
- The lymphatic system
But aside from doing research, Hunter also was entrusted with ensuring his brother’s school had a regular supply of its most vital teaching material — fresh cadavers. To do this, Hunter formed strong relationships with the local body snatchers.
This relationship continued when Hunter began practicing dentistry, where he popularized tooth transplants from — you guessed it — cadavers. His practice quickly went out of style, but Hunter had built up such a base of clientele throughout the years that he still ultimately became the most popular and best-paid surgeon in London.
One thing the Hunter did right in his lifetime was making postmortem autopsies respectable by using his influence to convince his friends and clientele to give prior consent to the practice on themselves or their family members.
Today, the practice of using cadavers is based on this principle — bodies are only ever used if the deceased or their next-of-kin give consent. Many people choose to donate their bodies to all sorts of institutions for a variety of research.