Museum of London head inspired 'to leave body to medical science' by dissection exhibition

Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men which opens tomorrow has had a profound effect on Sharon Ament

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The Independent Culture

A gruesome new exhibition about human dissection at the Museum of London may leave a few visitors feeling faint, but it had a far more profound effect on the new head of the institution. Sharon Ament, who started earlier this year, now intends to leave her body to science. 

Ms Ament told The Independent that she was profoundly affected by the exhibition Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men, which opens tomorrow and added: “There is actually a greater need for bodies now than ever before.”

On a mirror put up for visitors to write their comments at the end, the director, who took over as director in May, has written: “I now realise that my body is a valuable resource that I’ll be leaving for science.” She joked there was no pressure for visitors to do the same.

The exhibition lifts the lid on the lid on the “macabre story around the scientific endeavours that were embarked upon in the search for knowledge and anatomy” starting in the 19th century, she said.

It displays skeletons found at the largest burial site for dissected bodies found in the UK. The discovery was made in 2006, with 262 burials unearthed during excavation works related to the redevelopment of The Royal London Hospital.

Julia Davidson, one of the exhibition’s curators, said: “The archaeological finds are unique” adding: “As far as I’m aware there’s never been an exhibition like this.”

The exhibition shows the story of the “heroic age of surgery” in the early 19th century, as the need for bodies to train students in anatomy grew. It shows the skeletons of dissected bodies, anatomical drawings, 18th century amputation tools, coffins and artwork.

As well as a showing the surgeons’ practices, including the method for amputation at a time when no anaesthetic was available, it studies the shadowy trade that grew up around it of bodysnatching. Ms Davidson called it “truly a black market”.

The so-called “resurrection men” took bodies from graveyards and sold them to surgeons who would practise on them and train up students. The earliest mention of them is traced back to the early 18th century.

The rise of private anatomy schools in the early 1800s saw the demand for bodies increase to about 500 a year. The traditional method of using executed murders yielded about 20 a year and doctors turned to more shady avenues to procure specimens.

The demand sparked an increase in numbers of resurrection men and turf wars broke out between rival gangs. The authorities tried to counteract them with methods including putting man traps in the graveyards.

The infamous Burke and Hare, who murdered people for their bodies in Edinburgh, sparked panic across the country and gave rise to the term “burkers”.

A sensational case in London saw John Bishop, Thomas Williams and James May convicted of killing a boy to sell for dissection. The “burkophobia” prompted the 1832 Anatomy Act, the legacy of which lasted until 2004.

Ms Davidson said: “I hope visitors feel conflicted about the rights and wrongs of the whole thing.” She pointed to the conflict between bodies being stolen but added: “I wouldn’t have wanted to be on an amputation table without anaesthetic and a surgeon who had not practised on a body.”

Among the highlights are a digitised version of the diary of a resurrection man called Joshua Naples, which chronicles his trade and a recreation of the debate that culminated in the Anatomy act.

The exhibition “leaves you in no doubt that when it comes to going under the surgeon’s knife we are better off today,” Ms Ament said.

She added: “It’s a very reflective exhibition, it is not sensationalist. People may have strong reactions, but museum should try and elicit strong reactions from their visitors.”