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Trafficking in Corpses Has a Lively History

June 21, 2004|Sarah Wise | Sarah Wise is the author of "The Italian Boy" (Metropolitan Books, 2004).

The alleged goings-on at UCLA's medical school and the suspension of its Willed Body Program amid rumors of corpse trafficking for profit have an uncannily familiar ring.

One hundred seventy-two years ago, Britain passed the world's first legislation to stamp out trading in cadavers. The Anatomy Act of 1832 signaled the beginning of the end for the reviled figure of the Body Snatcher (also known as the Resurrection Man) -- a real-life boogeyman who stalked graveyards and mortuaries, searching out corpses to peddle to medical students and teachers.

Before passage of the law, in the 1820s, London's four hospital medical schools and 17 private anatomy academies annually trained about 500 students who, according to the findings of an 1828 parliamentary inquiry, required three bodies each during training in human anatomy and surgical technique. But the only bodies legally obtainable by surgeons and medical students were the bodies of executed murderers. And in the whole of Britain, an average of just 12 murderers were executed each year. You do the math.

Into this supply-and-demand nightmare slunk the body snatchers, relieving the anatomists and their students of having to dig up corpses themselves. Physically arduous but with huge financial incentives (one disinterred corpse could be worth the equivalent of a working man's salary for three months), bodysnatching attracted many. But only the most determined, vigilant and sober could stick at the trade: The number of full-timers, at the peak of their profession, in London in the late 1820s is estimated at just 10.

Oddly enough, it was one of London's most prolific and reliable Resurrection Men, John Bishop, who, in 1831, inadvertently brought about the end of the trade. After a 12-year career, during which he claimed to have "lifted" between 500 and 1,000 bodies, 33-year-old Bishop began to kill local vagrants and sell their bodies to London surgeons -- his way of speeding up the corpse-obtaining process.

Increasingly drunk and overconfident, he delivered a far-too-fresh adolescent boy to a London dissecting room. The police were called, and Bishop's game was up. The Anatomy Act was thrust through Parliament hastily in the wake of Bishop's "Italian Boy Murder."

That the trade existed at all was due to the curious legal position of the dead human body. It belonged to no one (once its original owner had finished with it), and so stealing a body was not a felony, only a misdemeanor, punished by a fine or up to six months in jail. (In fact, the vast majority of cases went undetected, thanks to the connivance of corrupt gravediggers, vicars, mortuary attendants and policemen who might be bribed.) This state of affairs ran counter to public opinion; most people considered grave robbery one of the most heinous of crimes. In the 1820s and 1830s, many -- perhaps most -- people considered the body to be in some way sacred. That it should have become a retail item was deeply shocking to our ancestors.

But the Anatomy Act that was passed in 1832 to solve these problems created a new one of its own. Under its provisions, the state took upon itself the power to commandeer the corpse of any Briton who died in an infirmary or workhouse if the body was unclaimed by a family member or friend. (In fact, the mid-1830s saw more than one ugly wrangle between friends of a deceased pauper and overeager doctors seeking bodies.) Thus, the Anatomy Act provided more corpses for doctors, reducing the market of grave robbers, but at the same time it singled out the poor (along with executed murderers) for what was considered a horrific end -- naked, in front of strangers and with no possibility of being buried in one piece.

So much for the old days. Today, Parliament is debating a new human tissue bill that, if passed in its present form, could result in jail sentences of up to three years and unlimited fines for anyone who retains body parts, or even tissue taken during surgery, without written consent from a patient or the next of kin of the deceased.

This rushed legislation has been introduced in response to recent scandals in which vast stockpiles of dead infants' organs were amassed at two large British hospitals with no prior consent obtained from the bereaved parents. The bill, in its current form, has been widely criticized by members of the medical-scientific community, who claim that vital research will be hampered or stopped. On June 28, the bill will be further considered by the House of Commons.

And that's also the worry created by the UCLA case -- that in the end, it is medical progress that could be hamstrung. In the early 21st century, we have the added complication of the seeming abuse of body donation: That an individual would seek to capitalize on one of the most altruistic acts is sickening indeed. Even the most hard-line atheist, one who believes that death is the end of the matter, that tissue is wholly material and not spiritual, balks at the idea of trading in human flesh. Because we cannot -- and should not -- shake off the ancient idea that human dignity matters hugely, and goes on mattering after death.

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