Warren Breckman: A Man of Parts: Jeremy Bentham and dead bodies

[Warren Breckman teaches modern European intellectual history at the University of Pennsylvania.]

Colin Dickey’s recent Roundtable offers a fascinating glimpse into the politics of human dissection in early modern Europe through unique situation in nineteenth-century Vienna. There, dissection was not only allowed but increasingly supported by the medical establishment and the state. At Vienna’s General Hospital, the poor could receive health care free of charge, but only on condition that if they died, their bodies would be delivered over to the medical school. Reading Dickey’s account, I could not help but think of that intrepid English defender of dissection, Jeremy Bentham.

Bentham tied the question of dissection directly to utility, the use of the dead for the living. He was, after all, the founder of Utilitarianism, a program for legislative reform guided by the pursuit of the “greatest happiness for the greatest number.” Inspired by a widespread eighteenth-century view that human beings are at birth blank slates, Bentham reduced human motivation to the maximization of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. Happiness comes in measurable units, he insisted. A “felicific calculus” could turn the science of government into a form of ethical bean-counting. Bentham’s hard-nosed rationalism scandalized some of his contemporaries. But by the early 1800s he had attracted talented followers like James Mill and his son John Stuart Mill. Years later, in the mid-1850s, Charles Dickens would parody utilitarianism in Hard Times, when the bullying schoolteacher Mr. Gradgrind declares, “Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life.” Around the same time as Dickens, Karl Marx described Bentham as “a purely English phenomenon…With the driest naïveté he takes the modern shopkeeper…as the normal man. Whatever is useful to this queer normal man, and to his world, is absolutely useful.” Bentham, Marx decided, is “a genius in the way of bourgeois stupidity.”

Marx misses what is so special about Bentham—unsentimental pragmatism mixed with eccentricity worthy of Monty Python. Indeed, in his tireless defense of dissection, one could easily imagine Bentham in London’s streets calling to the good citizens, “Bring out your dead.” As he reports, the utility of the dead was a favorite subject at his table, spread (one hopes) with slabs of over-cooked British beef to put flesh on the argument. In 1824, Bentham’s good friend Dr. Thomas Southwood Smith published a tract on the “Use of the Dead to the Living.” A devoted Benthamite, Southwood Smith evaluated the theme in utilitarian terms. What could be more basic to happiness than good health? Who could be more essential to good health than a doctor? And what is more important to a doctor than anatomical knowledge?

Bring Out Your Dead

How could doctors gain that knowledge without a steady supply of cadavers? To illustrate his point, Southwood Smith looked at Scotland, which had backtracked in its laws. He recalled that some fifty years earlier, Scottish medical schools had an abundant supply of corpses, and medical knowledge surged. How lamentable then that “In the 19th century the good people of Scotland, that intelligent, that cool and calculating, that most reasonable and thinking people, have thought proper to return to the worst feeling and the worst conduct of the darkest periods of antiquity.”

With only a tiny trickle of executed criminals available for dissection, Southwood Smith reports that students at Edinburgh Medical College were obtaining degrees after a year or two of rote memorization for their exams. Afterwards, they shipped out to the East and West Indies or into the army and navy, and instead of healers, they became “instruments of cruelty and murder.” Incidentally, Charles Darwin began medical study at Edinburgh in 1825, but gave it up, partly because he couldn’t stand the sight of blood. He always regretted never having perfected the skill of dissection. Edinburgh Medical College was also the home of Dr. Robert Knox, whose pursuit of medical knowledge could not be sated by the limited supply of executed criminals, so he turned to the body snatchers William Burke and William Hare, who were convicted of murdering seventeen people to keep up with Knox’s demand. Burke was hanged in January 1828 and fittingly dissected.

The scandal of Burke and Hare was still four years in the future when Southwood Smith proposed that British society must overcome its religious and sentimental scruples and free up the supply of the dead. Consistent with the practices in Vienna, Southwood Smith urged that the poor could solve the problem. But the modest contract that allowed the Viennese poor to exchange healthcare against their bodies was not what Southwood Smith had in mind. He proposed that unclaimed bodies in hospitals and all those who die in poor-houses, work-houses, and houses of correction be delivered forthwith to medical schools. Aware that some of his readers might feel uneasy with this handling of society’s unfortunates, he cautioned that if doctors couldn’t practice on the dead bodies of the poor, they would use those of the living...

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