MedHum Monday presents: Spectacular Anatomy–The History of Human Dissection

DailyDose_darkstrokeWelcome back to MedHum Monday at the Daily Dose! Today we present a guest post by Julia Balacko, BA, MA, from Case Western Reserve University. An anthropologist and humanities scholar, Julia gives us the fascinating history (and anthropology) of anatomy and public display.


The History and Anthropology of Human Dissection, Public Display, and Criminality

Male figure, anterior view showing blood vessels, liver heart and bloodletting points.  Woodcut circa 1530 - 1545
Male figure, anterior view showing blood vessels, liver heart and bloodletting points.
Woodcut circa 1530 – 1545

Towards the end of my stint studying English literature, my research posed the following question: what happens whenever human bodies, and the dissection of bodies, becomes a spectacle or form of entertainment? What if the bodies themselves have unique relationships with their audiences in numerous venues? These were less bioethical questions than anthropological ones, in that instead of pondering the moral dimensions of anatomical display, I wanted to know how different audiences responded to anatomy and to displays of human bodies.

I had been trained in my undergraduate and Masters degree programs in early modern English theatre (Shakespeare and his contemporaries, publishing their works in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.) I studied age-old revenge tragedies that were marked with violent scenes of war and capital punishment that mirrored what was happening at the time in English history: when public executions served as popular entertainment and when the preserved, decapitated heads of criminals were displayed on bridges above the river Thames. It was an era in which common people were exposed to bodily violence on a daily basis in numerous capacities, and a time when anatomical science was entering its golden age, spurred by the work of Vesalius and Leonardo da Vinci.

At the jointure of these two cultural movements was a troubled relationship between public entertainment, capital punishment, and human dissection. Bodies of criminals killed on the scaffolds in London were subsequently given to surgeons and physicians for anatomical study after Henry VIII passed a law permitting the legal use of executed felons for this purpose. However unlike today, convicts were scarcely anonymous, with tales of their crimes circulated both in oral retellings and popular print. The people who attended executions knew the criminals’ stories, and they also knew (and often heartily protested) the use of the people whose bodies were employed for dissection, both because they sometimes viewed the criminals as storied antiheroes and because they believed dissection barred a person from entering heaven in the afterlife (an unfair punishment beyond execution.) The public acceptance of human death as spectacle in early modern England is complicated by the fervent response against anatomical study in that period.

There was, then, tremendous tension between who had access to bodies and in what capacity. Why was it acceptable in the public view to watch people be executed, but not permissible for anatomists to dissect the bodies? In my MA thesis, I suggested that part of this public concern came from how limited access to anatomical learning was in that time for the majority of people. While Renaissance dissections have traditionally been called “public,” in that many people assembled to watch one lecturer and one anatomist dissect a cadaver, they were not openly accessible to the general populace. Dissections were uncommon and therefore only frequented by medical students, surgeons, and the educated or wealthy elite. The public did not have the same level of exposure to anatomical inquiry as they did to other forms of bodily violence. Nor was their relationship with the bodies being dissected the same as it must have been for the anatomists, who viewed the bodies as scientific objects. The public tended to see the executed as prisoners who once lived a daring life of crime and who deserved, perhaps, at least some sympathy by not defacing their bodies via dissection.

For anthropologists and cultural historians, understanding issues regarding the disposal and usage of human bodies and the relationship between anatomy and criminality in various fashions continues to be pressing. The popular Body Worlds exhibition poses difficult questions about whether or not non-clinicians should have access to dissected bodies, and whether or not it is acceptable for them to be entertained by such a display. It has also returned scholars to a debate about the ethics of displaying criminal bodies, as enormous fears that the cadavers in the exhibit were those of executed Chinese prisoners permeated many early discussions about the exposition. Likewise, tales of body snatching for anatomical study, and the use without consent of harvested organs such as in the Alder Hey case, still haunt the cultural presence of medical learning. And, of course, such discussions ask us about the democratization of knowledge: who has the right to observe anatomical specimens? Is it wrong to deny the public access to human cadaveric specimens, even if they are observed not out of a need to acquire scientific information? Is anatomy on display more unethical than other forms of publicly viewed violence or destruction?

As scholars, knowing the historical trajectory of anatomical learning from the past up to today sheds light on how and why such issues are present. It is the prime context for investigating where tensions surrounding human dissection derive from, and how they have changed– as well as for reminding us of the cultural impact that our predecessors had on shaping our relationship to anatomical science.



Julia Balacko holds a BA in English Literature summa cum laude from W&J College and a MA in Humanities from the University of Chicago. She is currently a PhD student in medical anthropology at Case Western Reserve University. Her research explores the history and cultural dimensions of anatomical learning and human dissection in American medical education.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s