A deadly serious matter, dressed up as entertainment

This is a travesty of medical science, a grotesque pastiche of a dark but necessary side of the healer's art

Share
Related Topics

Why would anyone want to attend a post-mortem examination? They're horrible. Attending one unless you have to is, in my view, pretty much like taking a holiday on the Costa del Sol in peak season. Both involve unnecessary exposure to quantities of unappealing and not very fragrant flesh. And it takes a peculiar sort of person to want to do either.

Professor Gunther von Hagens was last evening performing the first public autopsy in Britain since 1710. His motive, he claims, was to demystify the process. Making autopsies the preserve (no pun intended) of the medical profession was like "when only clergymen had the right to read the bible". Not a convincing metaphor. The police officers who fainted during the opening credits of TV pathology drama Quincy weren't doing so because Jack Klugman was reading from Revelations.

The Ministry of Health has muttered about banning the spectacle, by invoking the 1832 Anatomy Act. There is real irony here. The Act was passed in order to protect the public from exactly the sort of thing Von Hagens wants to do – but people are volunteering to take part from the grave, or shortly before it.

Prior to the end of the 18th century, the only legal source of cadavers was the right of the College of Barbers and Surgeons to take four hanged criminals every year, granted by Henry VIII. The public hated the idea of post-mortem dissection. It was occasionally tacked on to a death penalty as an extra punishment. Many believed that the body had to be intact on Judgement Day, a belief that persists in some cultures. A grieving Maori family once asked me, while I was working in the South Pacific, to return a relative's leg, amputated several years before.

The Anatomy Act was a response to the body-snatching and murder scandals of Burke and Hare in Edinburgh. In essence, it made provision for the bequest of one's corpse should you wish it for dissection. The body of Jeremy Bentham, the founder of University College London and prime mover of the Act, can still be viewed in the college cloisters. More controversially, it made unclaimed corpses available for the purpose, unless the patient had specifically refused permission. It also ensured that it could only take place in licensed premises, the section the ministry has invoked against Von Hagens.

How far we have come! From an Act designed to prevent an unwilling public from becoming anatomy specimens, to a moment where people are queuing up for their moment on the marble slab. A shame Andy Warhol is dead – do your 15 minutes count if you aren't alive? In Britain 20 people have volunteered to be plastinated – unfortunately for the Prof, none has yet died. So he turned yesterday to the cadaver of an elderly man already preserved in formaldehyde.

Could this be called a real autopsy? Professor von Hagen has perfected – if that is the right word for such a ghoulish and pointless activity – plastination. On this occasion, because of the formaldehyde, there were none of the visceral aromas usually associated with the organs of the recently dead. Nor was there any of the personal distress of seeing your patient, whom you could not save but might have spoken to only hours before, in the undignified disarray of dissection. Von Hagens champions a travesty of medical science, a grotesque pastiche of the dark but necessary side of the healer's art.

Post-mortem examinations are carried out really for two reasons. One is the educational purpose the Anatomy Act was designed for: to teach medical students. The other is to establish a cause of death where it may be obscure or suspicious or under certain legal rules specified by the coroner. Professor von Hagens intended to perform a deranged hybrid of both. The preserved gentleman must already have a cause of death, because his body would not have been released without a death certificate. This carnival – and I use the word in its most literal sense – clearly serves neither purpose.

Should he be banned? Some people say autopsies are irrelevant anyway. Newer medical schools are considering using virtual dissection instead of the traditional formaldehyde-drenched scalpel and forceps variety. The Alder Hey scandal has made the public once again deeply suspicious of post-mortems. Most doctors agree, though, that we probably do not do enough, and that much education and many diagnoses are missed as a consequence.

I wouldn't ban it, on the grounds that Von Hagens and his audience, although plainly very strange, are doing nothing to hurt anyone who has not volunteered to take part. But what will be "demystified" by viewing the performance that couldn't be achieved by looking in a medical encyclopedia or a trip to the butcher? The real motivation is clearly entertainment, although I can't quite bring myself to call it a bit of harmless fun.

I have to attend autopsies, and, of course, I had to dissect corpses for my training as a doctor. I have to say I am pretty hard pressed to spot the entertainment value in either. Perhaps I'm not the best judge. Someone somewhere must have thought the BBC's puerile and demeaning new medical sitcom TLC was reasonably entertaining to commission it. De gustibus non est disputandum.

The author is a doctor in a London teaching hospital

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
More From
Robert Baker
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper

£23000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing boutique prac...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Executive

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Retail Buyer / Ecommerce Buyer

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working closely with the market...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - CAD Software Solutions Sales

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A reputable company, famed for ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letter from the Education Editor: This shocking abuse of teachers should be taken seriously

Richard Garner
Brand loyalty: businessmen Stuart Rose (pictured with David Cameron at the Conservative conference in 2010) was among the signatories  

So, the people who always support the Tories... are supporting the Tories? Has the world gone mad?

Mark Steel
War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

War with Isis

Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

A spring in your step?

Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
10 best compact cameras

A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

Paul Scholes column

Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?