The Surgeon’s Plan: Tympanic Membrane Perforation

By the nineteenth century, Sir Astley Paston Cooper (1768-1841), surgeon to Guy’s Hospital, outlined his observation that puncture of the tympanic membrane could be effective in draining out collections of fluid in the middle ear, and hence, improve a particular type of deafness.

Sir Astley Cooper

Cooper’s work was inspired in part by his friend Sir Everard Home (1756-1832), surgeon to St. George’s Hospital and son-in-law of surgeon John Hunter (1728-1793). On 7 November 1799, Home read a paper before the Royal Society describing how comparative anatomy led him to outline the radial fibres of the tympanic membrane, emphasizing how the “muscular action…may conduce to account for certain phanomena in the sense of hearing.”[1] In particular, Home emphasized that while it “is true that the membrane tympani is stretched and relaxed by the action of the muscles of the malleus…It is stretched, in order to bring the radiated muscle of the membrane itself into a state capable of acting, and of giving those different degrees of tension to the membrane” suitable for hearing.[2] In a letter to Home, read before the Royal Society, Cooper remarked on whether “the loss of power which the organ of hearing would sustain by perforating the membrane tympani,” of a human ear, as only dogs have previously been made the subject of these trials, as exemplified by the work of British physician Thomas Willis (1621-1675) and Valsalva. Observing the ear of two of his patients—a Mr. P., twenty year old medical student at St. Thomas’s Hospital, who had been subjected to vicious attacks of inflammation and suppuration in his left hear since childhood, and Mr. A., another gentleman professing similar complaints—Cooper contended that it “was evident from these experiments that the membrana tympani of each ear was incomplete, and that the air issued from the mouth, but the Eustachian tube, through an opening in that membrane, and escaped by the external meatus.”[3] Cooper’s observations claimed that in cases where the membrana tympani had been destroyed, air was still able to produce the necessary effect for perfect hearing.

The likelihood that tympanic membrane perforation did not necessarily result in a loss of hearing and immediate enthusiasm for the procedure led Cooper to deliver a second paper before the Royal Society, outlining a clear methodology for the procedure and describing its success.[4] Remarking on the “prejudice” against medical intervention, Cooper writes:

A prejudice has prevailed, that the ear is too delicate an organ to be operated upon, or, as it is commonly expressed, tampered with; and thousands have thus remained deaf for the rest of their lives, who might have been restored to hearing, had proper assistance been easily applied. But this prejudice, it is hoped, will now be done away; since it appears, that part which had been thought most essential to hearing, viz., the membrana tympani may be injured by disease, or may be broken by violence, without a deprivation of the sense of hearing, and that, even when this membrane is entirely destroyed, another is found to perform its functions; so that the powers of the organ have still been, in a considerable degree, preserved.[5]

Cooper examined more than twenty cases of deafness coupled with damaged membrana tympani, which he insisted often arises from an obstruction in the Eustachian tube. The operation Cooper proposed to cure for this deafness consisted in puncturing the membrana tympani, which he documented in several cases: “The operation to remedy the species of deafness here described, consists in passing into the ear a canula, of the size of a common probe, in which a trocar is concealed; the canula is to rest upon the membrana tympani, and the trocar is then to be thrust through the membrane.”[6] The operation, however, was performed blind, as Cooper’s sole motives for implementing the procedure was based on Eustachian tube obstruction.[7] For his observations, in 1802 Cooper was bestowed the Copley medal by the Royal Society, and in 1805 was elected a Fellow.

The immediate response from Cooper’s papers led to tympanic membrane perforation becoming a popular procedure, used as a catch-all “cure” for all cases of deafness, despite Cooper’s claims that it should be carefully adhered to his strict selection criteria. Christian Michaelis, for instance, Professor of anatomy and surgery in Marburg, performed the operation on sixty-three patients in 1804 alone.[8] Many “non-medically trained” practitioners also promoted the use of the procedure for their patients, and its “injudicious overuse inevitably led to it falling from favour, as the majority of patients did not gain any benefit, and many presumably lost further hearing as a result of blind tympanic membrane perforation.”[9]


[1] Everard Home, “The Croonian Lecture: On the Structure and Uses of the Membrana Tympani of the Ear,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 90 (1800): 1-21; 1.

[2] Home, “On the Structure and Uses of the Membrana Tympani,” 11.

[3] Astley Cooper, “Observations on the Effects Which Take Place from the Destruction of the Membrana Tympani of the Ear,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, 90 (1800): 151-160; 153.

[4] Astley Cooper, “Farther Observations on the Effects Which Take Place from the Destruction of the Membrana Tympani of the Ear; With an Account of an Operation for the removal of a Particular Species of Deafness,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 91 (1801): 435-450.

[5] Cooper, “Farther Observations on the Effects,” 449.

[6] Cooper, “Farther Observations on the Effects,” 444.

[7] J. Rimmer, C.E.B. Giddings, and Neil Weir, “History of Myringotomy and Grommets,” The Journal of Laryngology & Otology 121 (2007): 911-916, 912.

[8] Rimmer, Giddings, and Weir, “History of Myringotomy and Grommets,” 912.

[9] Rimmer, Giddings, and Weir, “History of Myringotomy and Grommets,” 912.


The Catheter

Valsalva’s De aure remained one of the standard treatises on the ear and the Valsalva maneuver gained popularity among physicians and surgeons for diagnosing sources of blockages in the ear. The maneuver, however, contained little therapeutic benefits for cases in which there weren’t blockages in the tube or associated parts of the ear; moreover, it could hardly detect causes for the majority of cases of deafness. In 1724, Valsalva’s method was modified by the use of a catheter. In order to relieve his deafness, Edmé-Gilles Guyot, a postmaster at Versailles, constructed an angular tube of pewter and put it through his mouth into the opening of the Eustachian tube. The instrument was then attached to a leather tube connected to two small pumps that forced fluid into the mouth of his Eustachian tube and essentially, “washed” out his deafness. Excited with the success of his instrument, Guyot presented his apparatus to the Académie Royale des Sciences des Paris.[1] However, the instrument received little attention or excitement, in part since anatomists did not think the entire tube could be reached via insertion, and partly since the technique was believed to be cumbersome for regular treatments.[2]

In 1741, unaware of Guyot’s instrument, Archibald Cleland (1700-1771), a Scottish military surgeon, published a paper with engravings of several instruments for surgery, including a catheter meant for Eustachian tube catheterization.[3] His instrument and purpose was significantly different than Guyot’s: Cleland used a flexible silver tube instead of a pewter one, “to admit of bending them, as occasion offers.”

Cleland’s Instruments

Additionally, Cleland recommended catheterization only upon occasion in which drainage of ear wax or removal of obstructions with a forceps, failed to remedy the patient from deafness:

If, upon Trial, [the Eustachian tube] should be found to be obstructed, the Passage is to be lubricated by throwing a little warm Water into it by a Syringe joined to a flexible silver Tube, which is introduced through the Nose into the oval Opening of the Duct at the posterior Opening of the Nares, towards the Arch of the Palate. The Pipes of the Syringe are made small, of Silver, to admit of bending them, as occasion offers; and, for the most part, resemble a small Catheters: They are mounted with a Sheep’s Ureter; the other End of which is fixed into an Ivory Pipe; which is fitted to a Syringe, whereby warm Water may be injected: or they will admit to blow into the Eustachian tube, and so force Air into the Barrel of the Ear, and dilate the Tube sufficiently for the Discharge of the excrrementitious Matter that may be lodged there.[4]

Cleland’s procedure also differed significantly from that of Guyot’s with the insertion of the catheter; Cleland favored insertion though the nasal cavity, which allowed better access to the Eustachian tube, whereas Guyot’s method relied on the catheter being inserted through the mouth. It’s important to note that Cleland did not view the procedure solely as a remedy for deafness, but rather as a means to “dilate the Tube” sufficiently for drainage, and attached a syringe as part of the procedure.

Cleland’s procedure was further described in detail by the surgeon Jonathan Wathen, although Wathen ceased to mention Cleland’s work or might have not been aware of it. In 1755, he wrote “[w]hatever obstructs the passage leading from the ear into the nose, called tuba Eustachiana, so as to hinder the ingress of air through it into the cavity of the tympanum, is, I believe, universally esteemed destructive to the sense of hearing.”[5] Like his predecessors, Wathen argued the Eustachian tube played an important avenue for maintaining air pressure through its “free communication with the atmosphere,” and he describes in detail how he first examined the tube and found catheterization as a valuable mode for treating deafness arising from blockages. One of his patient, thirty-five year old Richard Evans, was deaf in both ears thought there was no visible evidence of any disorder in the external ear. Acknowledging the cause to a cold that subsisted for several years, Evans could not find any treatment sufficient to relieve him. After his death from small-pox, Wathen took the opportunity to conduct an autopsy to examine the Eustachian tubes, and found “them both stuffed quite full of congealed mucus, which was observed by two gentlemen of the profession present. This was the only visible cause of his deafness, the other parts appearing in their natural state.”[6]

Wathen’s observations led him to “make trial” of the operation proposed by Guyot, but “having never practiced it, he wanted the recommendation of facts to support and enforce it; [Wathen] therefore rejected [the procedure] as impracticable.”[7] However, after observing a demonstration by the anatomist John Douglas (d.1743), who, following the work of French surgeon Jean-Louis Petit (1674-1750), inserted a probe through the mouth (as opposed to the nose), Wathen perceived the procedure in a different light. It is to Douglas, Wathen claims, that he “freely acknowlege [sic] myself indebted for the hint, by which I was inclined to make trial on the living, of an operation of so much importance to mankind.”[8] He refined his skills by practicing catheterization on dead subjects, and having done so, he “did the same on a person that was very deaf, and on whom all other means had proven ineffectual: no sooner had I withdrawn the probe, that he said, he could hear better.”[9] Using a silver catheter fixed to an ivory syringe full of liquor (mel rosarum in warm water), Wathen treated several patients with various symptoms and cases of deafness, describing the use of the procedure on six of his patients; he thus is among the first to publish case studies of Eustachian tube catheterization as a remedy for deafness.

Instance of Eustachian Tube Catheterization by Wathen
(volume 49 (1755-6) of Philosophical Transactions; Science Photo Library)

He also acknowledges the difficulty of diagnosing obstructions in the tube:

I have endeavoured to ascertain the symptoms that indicate an obstructed tube, but have not been able to do it with any degree of certainty; nor can I see the great utility of it, could it be done; for the only disorders of the ear, that at present admit of chirurgical helps, are those of the external meatus, ulcerated and swell’d tonsils, &c., all of which are generally visible; and when they are not the cause of deafness, little or nothing is ever attempted, the patient being left to shift for himself.[10]

He does, however, note that Eustachian tube catheterization provided “another probable chance” for the “unhappy sufferer,” being the only procedure that can treat “corroborating symptoms.” The operation, Wathen declares, “is not all dangerous, it neither has, nor will, I believe, be thought painful by those who desire to recover their hearing.” [11]


[1] “Machines ou Inventions Approvees par l’Academie en M.DCCXX,” Histoires de l’Académie Royale des Sciences (1720), 114:

‘Une Machine à scier de M. Guyot. Quoi-qu’elle foit conftruite fur le même principe que cells qui font en usage, & que le Vent ou l’Eau font agir, elle a quell-que chose de particulier & d’ingenieux. Elle a fur cells qui font à Vent ou à Eau l’avantage de pouvoir être transportée. Il n’est besoin d’acune adresse pour la faire travailler, & les plus mal adroit peuvent par son moyen équarrer & scier parsaitement des Planches, & tout cela peut dédommager de la petre des foces cause par les srottements inévitables dans toute Machine.”

[2] Neil Weir, Otolaryngology: An Illustrated History (London: Butterworths, 1990), 45.

[3] Archibald Cleland, “A Description of Needles made for Operations on the Eyes, and of Some Instruments for the Ears,” Philosophical Transactions 41 (1741): 847-851.

[4] Cleland, “A Description of Needles,” 849.

[5] Jonathan Wathen, “A Method Proposed to Restore Hearing when Injured from an Obstruction of the Tuba Eustachiana,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 49 (1756): 213222; 213.

[6] Wathen, “A Method Proposed to Restore Hearing,” 215.

[7] Wathen, “A Method Proposed to Restore Hearing,” 215.

[8] Wathen, “A Method Proposed to Restore Hearing,” 216.

[9] Wathen, “A Method Proposed to Restore Hearing,” 216.

[10] Wathen, “A Method Proposed to Restore Hearing,” 220.

[11] Wathen, “A Method Proposed to Restore Hearing,” 220.

Monday Series: The Criminalized Body V

Body-Snatching and the Criminalized Body: A Badge of a Marginalized Condition

O Poverty! thou art the unpardonable offence…
Thou hast neither rights, charters, immunities nor liberties![1]

One of the major public conflicts with dissection stemmed from their fears of body-snatching. The shallow graves of the poor[2] were prime targets for body snatches and the ongoing debate between body snatching for purposes of dissection and the 1752 Act left the poor sympathetic to the condemned criminal, whose body was further destroyed and punished through dissection.

The sanctity of the grave further propelled eschatological attitudes towards dissection and the body. Moreover, confusion about the status of the corpse as a property right raises further issues towards ownership, dissection, and burials—Ruth Richardson argues that at the height of London’s graverobbing scenes in the 18th century, the corpse was largely viewed as a commodity, bidded and sold in an underground market between thieves and surgeon-anatomists. However, as the dead body did not constitute real property, no legal laws were technically violated with grave-robbing, nor could the family of the condemned corpse have any claim over burial rights.[3] By 1783, as a result of popular turmoil at the gallows, London executions were transferred from Tyburn to Newgate, but it did not cease to account for the class betrayal or bitterness of the London poor.[4] Jonathan Sawday also captures the status of the corpse as a reflection of the exploitation of the marginalized poor:

The question of the status of the dead human body is a fraught one. It is particularly fraught since, throughout the world, many indigenous peoples have ceased to tolerate the western habit of ‘acquiring’ human remains for scientific (and sometimes non-scientific) investigation…some Europeans looked to the marginal members of their own societies – the criminal, the poor, the insane, suicides, orphans, even, simply, ‘strangers’ – as potential ‘material’ upon which they could legitimately practice their own researches and investigations into the human form.[5]

As potential “material,” the criminal and the poor therefore were denied propriety rights over their own bodies; but we should not be quick to catalogue the status of criminality as a direct consequence of the poor, or vice versa, even though the Poor Laws of the nineteenth century attempted to make poverty a crime.

By the nineteenth century, the New Poor Laws and the drafting of the revised Anatomy Act further heightened the prejudice against the criminalized body and the poor’s objections to dissection. In 1832, Jeremy Bentham’s proposed bill aimed to ensure the privilege of the Royal College to preserve their rights to corpses; the bill weaved elements of Benthamite utilitarianism with Malthusian policies.[6] With the drafting of the bill and the new demand for bodies as a result of new anatomical-pathological models of disease, the 1832 Anatomy Act came into effect. With this Act, a new definition of property rights allowed family members the right of burial, although it also extended medical privileges, allowing the medical profession to obtain the corpses of the poor for purposes other than dissection. By 1834, the Poor Law Amendment established the New Poor Law, which essentially cast poverty as a crime.

It is no surprise that the marginalized poor found both the Anatomy Act and the New Poor Laws morally reprehensible, since it implied that poverty reflected moral shortcomings, and the vulnerability of the poor and criminal alike were adequate grounds for exploitation. Thomas Lacquer’s paper emphasizes the role of the pauper, an even more vulnerable state than the poor man, and how by the early nineteenth century paupers had no claim whatsoever over their own bodies, and they were aware in death they could end up owned by someone else.[7] Lacquer quotes a popular ditty reflective from the period:

Rattle his bones over the stones,
He’s only a pauper who nobody owns.

It was widely aware that paupers, more so than the poor, had no rights over their own bodies, particularly against the medical profession. As Lacquer argues,

To be a pauper meant not only to contemplate burial with indignity, having one’s life publicly marked the most dismal of failures, but also having one’s body, worth nothing alive, sold for dissection when one had ceased to own it. To be poor was to be profoundly vulnerable. Worse, to be a pauper was to be so vulnerable…that one risked death by accepting help from those who appeared to offer food and shelter.[8]

The essential point derived from Lacquer’s argument is his approach in defining the bodies of the poor as reflective of the badge of their (workshop) condition, an image of the body politics in nineteenth-century England.


Unlike the Middle Ages, which signified distinctions between angelic and monstrous bodies, the latter possibly a vessel for demonic evil, by the eighteenth century, the body politics of England was a reflection of the distinct social hierarchies, whereby one’s identity could be apparent down to one’s own skin. Morgan and Rushton remark that “the habit of dissection…did establish in the minds of the literate the idea that social reality – and the consequence of a particular way of life – were to some extent written on the body, and that if the truth about someone was to be obtained, the body was the first place to start.”[9] Thus, one’s self-identification could be viable upon the body itself, essentially embodied as a “mark of identity.”

The criminalized body is an example of embodied identity, with the mark of moral stagnation apparently fused on the body itself; thus criminals were usually described as physically repulsive, and any deformities as a mark of “criminality.” Becker for example, mentions that Elizabeth Sawyer, tried and convicted in 1621 for witchcraft, had a “crooked and deformed body,” proof of her spiritual corruption.[10] As well, Helkiah Crooke’s (1576-1635) An Explanation of the Fashion and vse of three and fifty instruments of Chirvrgey contains a section entitled “From the Printer to the Reader,” which contains a lavishly detailed of a criminal’s deformed body brought to the College of Physician’s Hall “to be Cut vp for an Anatomy.” [11] Focused on the deformed exterior of the corpse, the printer remarks his scorn and disgust for the criminal, who had been sentenced to be executed for the murder of a fellow member of the College. What’s extremely notable about the Printer’s description is his focus and discussion on the criminal’s feet, which he remarks was a traditional trait associated with demonic evil[12] To the printer then, the deformed nature of the body is evidence for the criminalizing status of the corpse. As Hilary Nunn points out, the printer, in his detailed description, left out the name of the condemned criminal,[13] disregarding the criminals’ own identity for the identity that the printer chose to give him, the criminalized body.  Is it merely a coincidence that the first criminal to be condemned under the “Murder Act,” Thomas Wilford, was a deformed man, born with only one arm?

Can we thus become accustomed that assume that eighteenth century individuals could attribute “self” to the body, making it monstrous, worth of scorn and ridicule?[14] The criminalized body captures this “otherness” trait, and becomes a vessel for society’s discord, vengeance for justice, and beliefs of the criminal status. Hume had argued the existence of repugnant “moral monsters,” those “anti-human” creatures embodying the marks of their heinous nature upon their bodies. He defines the moral monster as “[a] creature, absolutely malicious and spiteful were there any such in Nature, must be worse than indifferent to the images of vice and virtue. All his sentiments must be inverted, and directly opposed to those, which prevail in the ‘human species.’”[15] Steintrager, however, notes that Hume’s creature only marks the absolute limit of what is considered human; the epistemological focus then develops a construction of identity, in collaboration to social perspectives. He remarks that to “moral monstrosity’s role in constructions of identity must by added a secondary primary role: not only does the model of monstrosity in humanity’s certain groups, it allows for active interventions at the social and institutional levels.”[16]

Thus, the mark of the criminalized body, its true identity, is a social construction, an embodiment of the social reality of the individual, heightened and rectified by the legislations such as the 1752 “Murder Act,” and the 1832 Anatomy act, which attempted to provide legal justifications for the exploitation of the marginalized society, through the process of dissection.

*Thanks, Dear Reader, for your support in the first of the Monday Series. I hope you enjoyed this one. Next week I’ll begin a new series: “A Disease with no Remedy: Confronting Hereditary Phthisis, 1714-1830” where I examine some of the historical perceptions behind tuberculosis as a hereditary malady, and how medical practitioners recommended various dietetics to treat symptoms. In part, this series is an attempt to impart a historiography of medical hereditarianism by examining the reasons behind its popularity as a medical idea, from 1714 to 1830 in France and Britain.

Until next week, happy reading!!

[1] G. Beaumont (1898) in Ruth Richardson, Death, Dissection and the Destitute (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987), p.261.

[2] Though by no means this was simply restricted to the poor; Richardson also notes that the wealthy spent a fair amount of money in securing coffins, or else digging deeper graves (Richardson, p.98).

[3] Richardson, p.58.

[4] Richardson, p.75. Richardson also notes that this led to the gradual withdrawal of public executions, towards the privacy of prisons.

[5] Jonathan Sawday, The Body Emblazoned: Dissection and the human body in Renaissance Culture (London & New York: Routledge, 1995), p.3.

[6] Richardson pp.111-115.

[7] Thomas Lacquer, “Bodies, Death, and Pauper Funerals.” Representations 1 (Feb. 1983), pp.109-131; p.122.

[8] Lacquer, p.125.

[9] Gwenda Morgan and Peter Rushton, “Visible Bodies: Power, Subordination and Identity in the Eighteenth Century Atlantic World.” Journal of Social History 39:1 (2005), pp.39-64; p.41.

[10] Lucinda M Becker, Death and the Early Modern Englishwoman (Adershot: Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2003), p.77.

[11] A treatise bound with Crooke’s 1631 edition of Microcosmographia. Image reproduced with permission of the British Library in Hillary M. Nunn, Staging Anatomies: Dissection and Spectacle in Early Stuart Tragedy (England: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2005), p.37.

[12] Nunn, p.35.


[14] See Denis Todd’s Imagining Monsters: Miscrentions of the Self in Eighteenth Century England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), where Todd gives an excellent literary analysis of Swift’s Guliver’s Travels, and the ideas of “otherness” by virtue of the character’s deformities. See especially Chapter 5, “A Lamp of Deformity,” and Chapter 7, “What the Body Says.”

[15] An Enquiry Concerning the Principle of Morals (1751), in James A. Steintrager, “Perfectly Inhuman: Moral Monstrosity in Eighteenth Century Discourse.”Eighteenth-Century Life 21.2 (1997), pp.114-132; p.116.

[16] Steintrager, p.125.

Monday Series: The Criminalized Body IV

Samuel Ireland, Caricature of a dissection (1780-1890); after pen-drawing by J.H. Mortimer, in Fry coll., Yale.

The triumph of justice was a common theme in both the gallows and the anatomy theatre. Crowds were often drawn by the ghoulish atmosphere surrounding the high visibility punishment of the criminal at the gallows, viewing the carnivalisque mood as a restoration for moral justice. Exhibitions of public dissection reflected the “ritualization of the upside-down world of [carnival], sanctioned the evident sacrilege of violating dead bodies,”[1] with punishment rooted in publicity and the public’s channelling of vigilante justice. Conventionally, public perceptions of punishment was served not only as a moral responsibility—serving the community by punishing crimes committed—but also as a form of divine justice—punishing the soul as God would possibly require.

Through the “Murder Act,” the relationship between the execution scenes and the dissection scenes presents the criminalized body as central to the spectacle, his punishment a social focus “determined not only for societal revenge or even as a deterrent to others, but as an act of penance,” for the anatomist’s “salvation of his own sin-stained soul.”[2] Just as the executioner hangs the criminal, the surgeon who performs the dissection takes upon the role as executioner of the law,[3] and aspires not only to guarantee the “second death” of the corpse, but even to continue with “vengeance taken on the corpse.”[4] Death of the criminal then, was to be viewed as a gateway for divine punishment; the criminal, tortured and punished for his sins through his body, would then face his Maker, who would then punish the soul. Like the executioner, the anatomist was to adapt himself in the role as a transubstaniator.[5]

Despite carnivalisque attitudes towards executions and dissections, the status of the criminal’s body was perceived by citizens as a reflection of the marginalized section of society. Capturing the relationship between punishment and death, Samuel Edgerton argues that “if the condemned entered into his physical suffering on the scaffold with dignity and decorum, appearing brave but penitent like a stoic Christian martyr, then God might be impressed enough to grant him redemption in the hereafter.”[6] Themes of the afterlife and social customs are also captured within the realms of dissection; not only is the condemned criminal a symbolic embodiment of the demonic aspects of human nature, and the executioner/anatomist’s blade the mark of divine authority, but the collective representation of the scenes, in conjunction with the social body, reflect the grotesque elements of a thematizing image of the popular (social) body itself.[7] Furthermore, as Jonathan Simon points out, “the place of the human body in a society situated between Christianity and humanism further heightens” the tensions between detached scientific knowledge and the engaging nature of the surgeons as agents of the Crown.[8] Edgerton also notes that capital punishment was never a final process, an irrevocable sentence forever ending a life, but rather perceived as a way to reprimand the condemned’s case until he reached a higher, divine “appeals court.”

Bodies of the criminals, punished and damned, would continue to pay in the hereafter for the sins they had committed. Any attribution to formalize punishment towards the criminal in life was only to elaborate his divine punishment as he met his Maker; as an embodied capturing of his sins, the criminal’s body would not only contain his sinful crimes, but the dissection itself would signify the secondary torture inflicted on the criminal, further marking the stigmatizing nature of the criminalized body.


[1] Porter, Roy, Porter Bodies Politic: Disease, Death and Doctors in Britain, 1650-1900 (London: Reaktion Books Ltd., 2001), p.49.

[2] Samuel Y. Edgerton Jr., Pictures and Punishment: Art and Criminal Prosecution during the Florentine Renaissance (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1985), p.131.

[3] Ruth Richardson, Death, Dissection and the Destitute (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987), p.33.

[4] Clare Gittings, “Sacred and Secular: 1558-1660.” In Death in England: An Illustrated History. Eds. Peter Jupp and Clare Gittins (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1999), pp.147-174; p.149.

[5] Edgerton, p.213. Edgerton also mentions that the criminal’s body enables itself as a sort of sacrament, whereby the dissector takes it upon himself to perform the “sacred ritual.” In doing so, the dissector also “earns expiation for his own sins.”

[6] Edgerton, p.131.

[7] Paster, Gail Kern Paster, The Body Embarrassed: Drama and the Disciplines of Shame in Early Modern England (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1993), p.15.

[8] ]Jonathan Simon, “The Theatre of Anatomy: The Anatomical Preparations of Honoré Fragonard.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 36:1 (2002), pp.63-79; p.66.

Monday Series: The Criminalized Body II

Welcome to the second Monday Series on “The Criminalized Body.” If you missed the first one, simply click here.

William Hogarth, "The execution of the idle apprentice at Tyburn," 1747.

A Deterrent for Murder in a Culture of Dissection

The 1752 “Murder Act” reads

Whereas the horrid crime of murder has of late been more frequently perpetrated than formerly…it is thereby become necessary, that some further terror and peculiar mark of infamy be added to the punishment of death…The body of any such murderer shall, if such conviction and execution be in the county of Middlesex or within the city of London…be immediately conveyed by the sheriff…to the hall of the Surgeon’s Company…and the body so delivered…shall be dissected and anatomised by the said surgeons…in no case whatsoever the body of any murderer shall be suffered to be buried, unless after such body shall have been dissected and anatomised as aforesaid.

As historian Jonathan Sawday explains, with the Act, “two birds were to be killed with one stone [and] the demands of ‘justice’ mingled with the prospect of deterrence…Whilst, equally, the needs of ‘science’ could be fulfilled.”[1] Depsite anatomy and dissection being popular academic subjects, the royal decrees set by Henry VIII and Charles II were not enough to satisfy the needs for bodies on the dissection table. By the 1720s, bodysnatching from the London graveyards had become commonplace,[2] especially from shallow pauper graves. As public awareness of grave-robbing and bodysnatching increased, a shortfall of corpses followed, which led some anatomists to cover the costs obtaining corpses themselves, rather than result to stealing. Peter Lienbaugh argues that the process of obtaining a corpse was quite costly for anatomists, even leading to a further increase in bodysnatching, since during the 1730s, to attend a dissection cost five guineas, while to perform one cost seven guineas.[3]

During the eighteenth century, as anatomy and dissection became commonplace, they were not the public spectacles as those in Italy, where the long-standing history dates back as early as the thirteenth century. By 1299, Italians had began to dismember corpses regularly,[4] and the first public dissection was performed in 1306 at the University of Bologna.[5] Public dissections were central to Italian cities, annual manifestations especially during months of carnival, drawing in around 300-600 people into the city.[6] These grand, public affairs portrayed anatomy as being “necessary,” “noble,” and even “delightful.”[7] However, England’s case was quite different from her Italian counterparts; dissection was not mainstream until the sixteenth century, less of a public affair than a private practice. Most dissections were carried out within the public sphere of the College of Physicians and Surgeons Company, with attendance restricted to the “gentlemen of the town:” surgeons, physicians, and medical students.[8]

This does not mean there were no public dissections. On the contrary, with the 1752 Act, public dissection as a form of punishment was perceived as chaotic affairs, often compared to the unruly scenes surrounding public executions, as captured in William Hogarth’s Four Stages of Cruelty, particularly the 1747 THE IDLE ‘PRENTICE executed at Tyburn. Prior to the 1752 “Murder Act,” where dissection was radically presented as a “second death,”[9] as the condemned criminal could be further punished by the surgeon’s knife, the costs of obtaining a corpse fluctuated through the years. At Tyburn, Linebaugh outlines the costs: in the years of 1715-20, it cost £38 7s; 1720-25, £96 2s; 1725-30, £75 18s, 1730-35, £70 1s, 1735-40 £118 1s; 1740-45, £49 16s.[10] The year of the “Murder Act” marked a dramatic decrease in the costs, as the Bench anatomy was “clearly and unequivocally linked with the punitive powers of the sovereign,”[11] and there were no limits on bodies that were condemned to the anatomist’s slab as part of their punishment for murder. The years following the “Murder Act,” costs to the surgeons dropped to £3 8s between 1750-55, and maintained the low cost at £12 13s between 1755-60.[12] As a statutory penalty, the “Murder Act” was intended to serve as a deterrent for the high capital crime of murder, as well as to provide a social benefit by decreasing the amounts of grave-robbing scenes by providing a constant source of bodies for anatomical studies.[13]

With a steady stream of bodies sent to the anatomist, bureaucrats hoped the violent scenes and “days of constant tumult”[14] around the gallows could be diminished. Essentially, the 1752 Act served more for the needs of the anatomist than it did as a penal punishment; designed to evoke horrors of infamy, the draconian element did not have a strong effect in decreasing murderous crimes in England. Furthermore, the Act served to formalize what was already a common practice. In what Sawday calls “the culture of dissection,”[15] the criminal corpse was mainly used for advancing medical discourse, a happy coincidence for surgeons and physicians whose knowledge and pracctice benefited from “Murder Act.”

As a culture of enquiry and a “refashioning” equivalent, the culture of dissection was wherein people made sense of the world around them “ in terms of their philosophical understanding, their theology, their poetry, their plays, their rituals of justice, their art, and their buildings.”[16] This widespread acceptance of dissection as a medical and scientific discourse leads us to forgo any existence of a “long-standing stagnation,”[17] whereby the attitude of the Christian Church resisted the practice of dissection; Katherine Park and Mary Alston have also lain to rest any misconceptions that there did indeed exist such a “taboo.”[18] However, what the Act had, in its unintended powers, was a social reaction among the English people, particularly the poor, who perceived the use and abuse of the criminal’s body as a mark of its social exclusion and moral stagnation, particularly with the Bench’s denial of burial for criminals.


[1] Jonathan Sawday, The Body Emblazoned: Dissection and the human body in Renaissance Culture (London & New York: Routledge, 1995), p.55.

[2] Ruth Richardson, Death, Dissection and the Destitute (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987), p.55.

[3] Peter Linebaugh, “The Tyburn Riot Against the Surgeons,” in Albion’s Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in Eighteenth Century England (London: Allan Lane, Penguin Books Ltd., 1975), p.77.

[4] Katherine Park, . “The Life of the Corpse: Division and Dissection in Late Medieval Europe.” The Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 50 (1995), pp.113-114.

[5] Thomas F. Tierney, “Anatomy and Governmentality: A Foucauldian Perspective and Death and Medicine in Modernity. T&E 2:1 (1998), p.24. Also, public anatomy theatres were commonplace, corresponding to features of carnival. See Giovanna Ferrari, “Public Anatomy Lessons and The Carnival: The Anatomy Theatre of Bologna.” Past and Present 117 (Nov. 1987): 50-106.

[6] Jan CC. Rupp, “Michel Foucault, Body Politics and the Rise and Expansion of Modern Anatomy.” Journal of Historical Sociology 5:1 (March 1992), p.32.

[7] Rupp, 43.

[8] Rupp, 48.

[9] Rupp, 48.

[10] Lindenbaugh, 77.

[11] Tinery, “Anatomy and Governmentality,” 36.

[12] Lindenbaugh, 77.

[13] Tinery, 37.

[14] Linebaugh in Tinery 37.

[15] Sawday, 14.

[16] Sawday, ix.

[17]Rupp, 33.

[18] Katherine Park, “Life of the Corpse,” and Mary Niven Alston, “The Attitude of the Church towards Dissection before 1500,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 16.3, October 1944: 221-238. Alhough both Park and Alston presents arguments for prior to the sixteenth century, Medieval attitudes about dissection has of course, carried forward in shaping beliefs and attitudes in later centuries. Jan Rupp, as well, mentions that it is probable that it was vivisection, not dissection of humans and brains of animals, which was forbidden by the Christian Church, since it would “destroy the soul” (Rupp, p.42).