Views & Reviews Review

Anatomy’s dark past

BMJ 2010; 341 doi: (Published 03 November 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;341:c6111
  1. Harold Ellis, professor, Department of Anatomy, Guy’s Campus, Guy’s, King’s and St Thomas’ School of Medicine, London

Burke and Hare are the most famous of the murderers who provided cadavers for the teaching of medical students—and the subjects of a new British film. Harold Ellis reflects on their story

Would anyone dispute that anatomical knowledge is an essential component of medical practice? Galen’s writings on anatomy dominated Western medicine from the second to the 16th century ad and were based mainly on dissections of pigs and apes. Andreas Vesalius of Padua (1514-64) must take the credit for performing dissections on executed criminals and for publishing his landmark De Humanis Corpora Fabrica in 1543, which marked the beginning of “modern” anatomy.

A problem through the centuries was the provision of bodies for dissection and teaching. In 1506 James IV of Scotland gave the Guild of Surgeons and Barbers of Edinburgh permission to dissect the bodies of some executed criminals, soon followed in 1540 by similar permission granted by Henry VIII to the newly formed Company of the Barber Surgeons in London. The medical schools in Oxford and Cambridge had similar limited access to human remains.

The growth of private …

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