A new gruesome discovery reveals that babies and Infants were prized in dissection by Victorian Anatomists.
The true story of Flora McLean and her gruesome discovery
1877 Flora McLean gave birth in a Lying-in Hospital in Glasgow. McLean complained about the neglectful treatment of her baby. Sure enough, 2 days later the infant died.
Hoping to see her child before the funeral, she was horrified to find that the body had been dismembered in a and sewn back together again! She had even paid the 10 shilling burial fee for a proper burial and was understandably upset at the state in which she discovered the mutilated body.
When doctors arrived later to examine the body they made the gruesome discovery that the baby’s head was missing.
The head, and later the body, had been taken to the Royal Inﬁrmary for dissection without the consent or knowledge of Flora McLean.
Foetal cadavers were prized
Stories of concealed dissections and stolen bodies such as Flora McLean’s haunted the 19th century. But dissection practices only increased.
In medical education, men dominated medical literature and historical research.
This dominance has muffled any conversation about the role of young children in anatomical education – until now.
Actually, fetuses and infants were prized both for demonstrating normal anatomical development, but also congenital abnormalities.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, abnormal bodies were commonly exhibited for entertainment. Living dwarves, giants and hermaphrodites were often displayed alongside anatomical specimens like “Siamese Twins”.
Fascination with ‘monsters’ was universal and medical men weren’t exempt. This interest is clear in the book “Human Monstrosities”, published in 1891, which features startling images of developmental defects in fetuses.
Public Dissection to deter murderers
The legal history of human dissection in England dates from 1540 when Henry VIII granted four hanged felons to the United Companies of Barbers and Surgeons for dissection.
Following this, the College of Physicians were allotted four criminals per year for dissection.
To deter the ‘horrid crime of murder’ anatomists were given the right to publicly dissect the bodies of murderers in the “Murder Act”. I guess hanging wasn’t enough of a discouragement!
While there was an average of 77 executions annually in Britain between 1805 and 1820, 450-500 bodies were dissected each year at the London Schools of Anatomy.
The disparity between the number of legally available bodies and the number required for anatomical education resulted in the gruesome resurrectionists or grave robbers.
These gangs were infamous for digging up freshly buried bodies from graveyards or even breaking into houses and stealing the deceased from the cofﬁn while awaiting burial!
Paid for by the inch
‘Small’ bodies (under 3 ft long) were paid for by the inch. These prices ranged from £100 to £1100, whereas the average price of an adult body was stated to be £44s0d,but as high as £7 17 6.
New legislation in 1832 ensured an extra supply of bodies, by permitting masters of workhouses, hospital managers and Poor Law guardians to donate unclaimed bodies of the poor.
Gruesome discovery – Inquests of deaths of infants “every day”
Illegitimate births were highly stigmatized during the 18th and 19th centuries.
Infanticide reached epidemic proportions during the Victorian era with the passing of the so-called “New Poor Law” in 1834. That law ended parish relief for unwed women, leaving them with 4 life-threatening options : the workhouse, prostitution, abortion and infanticide.
There were times when inquests into the death of infants in Marylebone were held ‘nearly every day’ (Times, 24 October 1862:6). The coroner for Central Middlesex, Edwin Lankester, estimated that over a several-year period in the mid-19th century, ‘12 000 women, or one in 30’ had murdered their infants without detection in London (Medical Times and Gazette, 26 April 1866:446).
The new study, though grisly and heart-rending, spotlights how the poor, fledgling dead contributed to our understanding of health and well-being.
The full gruesome discovery was published online in the Journal of Anatomy.