Human Remains Dissection and Its Histories Helen MacDonald

Publication date:
15 Apr 2011
Yale University Press
236 pages: 229 x 152mm
12 b-w illus.

Until 1832, when an Act of Parliament began to regulate the use of bodies for anatomy in Britain, public dissection was regularly—and legally—carried out on the bodies of murderers, and a shortage of cadavers gave rise to the infamous murders committed by Burke and Hare to supply dissection subjects to Dr. Robert Knox, the anatomist.
This book tells the scandalous story of how medical men obtained the corpses upon which they worked before the use of human remains was regulated. Helen MacDonald looks particularly at the activities of British surgeons in nineteenth-century Van Diemen’s Land, a penal colony in which a ready supply of bodies was available. Not only convicted murderers, but also Aborigines and the unfortunate poor who died in hospitals were routinely turned over to the surgeons.
This sensitive but searing account shows how abuses happen even within the conventions adopted by civilized societies. It reveals how, from Burke and Hare to today’s televised dissections by German anatomist Dr. Gunther von Hagens, some people’s bodies become other people’s entertainment.

"This is a book about human remains, and despite its grisly premise, is a jolly good read." - Tina Matthews, Bulletin of the Royal College of Pathologists

?This book is full of good stories well told, and witty analysis. MacDonald?s sensitivity to slippages of language and ethics makes it a treat.? - Ruth Richardson, The Lancet

?Reading this book, it comes as an unpleasant shock to learn how long this has been going on and how low some people have stooped to collect body parts in the supposed interests of science. ... MacDonald believes, rightly, that understanding behaviour in the past is crucial to our approach to current day events.? - Sanjay A Pai, British Medical Journal

"[Human Remains offers] intriguing new insights on Edinburgh's own Robert Knox and his circle." - The Scotsman

"...totally absorbing...balanced and well-considered...The author engage[s] the sympathy of all her readers, even pathologists...This is a book about human remains, and, depite its grisly premise, is a jolly good read."---Dr Tina Matthews, Bulletin of the Royal College of Pathologists

"MacDonald gives a colourful account of the great bone collectors and the world of dissection. ... If you thought the callous medical students in Dickens were an exaggeration, MacDonald provides ample evidence that Dickens was in reality underplaying it." - Tibor Fischer, The Sunday Telegraph

Winner of the Victorian Premier's Literary Awards for a First Book of History (September 2006)

"Helen MacDonald has written a remarkable story, which is itself a series of stories and comparisons. Like a good Agatha Christie murder mystery, this is a tale you will not want to put down until you have finished it."?Donald D. Trunkey, New England Journal of Medicine

?MacDonald is that rare and precious commodity: a crack historian with a taste for the bizarre. . . . She is to be commended for spotlighting the indignities done to men and women in the name of science.??Mary Roach, New York Times Book Review

?A set of interwoven stories about how concrete, fleshed-out individuals came to be subjects for dissection. Fresh, daring, and appealingly provocative.??John Harley Warner, Yale University

"This intriguing  history is a nuanced and subtle enquiry into the politics and morality of the dissecting room."?Fiona Capp, Age

?Chillingly gothic . . . compellingly readable.??The Australian

?MacDonald weaves a rich social history. . . . In the end we must ask ourselves: Do human remains matter? . . . A reading of MacDonald?s fine book will help us answer [this] question.??Charles Thorsvard,

"Macdonald . . . explains the connections between individual actions, reactions and the cultures of medicine and colonialism in clear and convincing terms. . . . She is . . . performing a kind of mourning work for the individuals objectified through dissection."?Rachel Ariss, The Semiotic Review of Books

"Macdonald evinces sympathy in her reader and great empathy for her historical subjects. . . . [She is] fastidiously respectful of the all-too-ordinary narratives of the lives and deaths of those individuals subject to post-mortem dissection."?Kate Cregan, Arena Magazine

"This book is compellingly readable. . . . It depicts for the first time what occurred in the name of medicine and science in the comparative colonial isolation of Tasmania. A necessary and immeasurably important book."?Christopher Bantick, Weekend Australian

"Human Remains is a remarkable debut. In this spine-chilling dissection of the moral underworld of the Victorian body snatchers, Helen MacDonald offers an elegant, informative and gripping tale of a medical practice that has been all but forgotten. Or has it? Lightly touching on the contemporary relevance of the 19th-century fascination with dissection and bone collecting, and written with historical insight and flair, Human Remains is ethnographic history at its detailed, dramatic and disturbing best. MacDonald imbues the unwitting subjects of the 19th-century dissection trade with a degree of dignity, showing us something meaningful of their lives as well as their after-lives on slab and in the pickling jar. She also anatomises the anatomists?their motives, their vanities and their crimes. She bridges the imaginative gulf between their world and ours, posing disturbing questions about the origins of modern medicine and continuing conflicts over the rights of the dead. MacDonald's consummate skill as a writer and innovation as a researcher combine to produce an extremely satisfying and thought-provoking reading experience."?Judges of the Victorian Premier's Literary Award for a First Book of History September 1, 2006

"MacDonald takes a close look at how bodies were procured, traded for favors, treated and viewed by 19th-century medical men and by their broader society. She focuses on the penal colony Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania), which supplied Aboriginal bodies to British men of science, to illustrate the ways human remains have sometimes been stripped of their sacred meaning in the name of science and even in the name of entertainment."?SciTech Book News

"In this accomplished and compassionate study, Helen MacDonald shows how medical men in a distant outpost of the British empire made use of dead bodies, and why their practices remain deeply troubling."?Stuart Macintyre, University of Melbourne

"A thought-provoking and readable book that raises important ethical considerations regarding the use and abuse of human remains, both in the past and in the present. . . . MacDonald weaves a complex narrative linking morally questionable historical practices . . . with controversial practices carried out in a modern context."?Anne Andermann, Canadian Medical Journal Association

Short-listed for the Ernest Scott Prize in History (July, 2006), awarded by the Australian Historical Association.

"MacDonald has enriched our understanding of what the book's subtitle calls 'dissection and its histories.'"?Nadja Durbach, American Historical Review

"MacDonald has written a passionate and compelling tale. . . . An excellent work that tells us much about the many meaning of the human body."?Anita Guerrini, Canadian Journal of History

"Fascinating. . . . MacDonald's book is based on an excellent array of archival and primary sources from British and Australian collections."?Susan C. Lawrence, Isis

"A substantial contribution to the history of anatomy, not only because it connects events in the remote, peripheral, colonial territory of Tasmania to the socio-cultural history of Western science, but mostly because it refuses to focus only on the white men of science. . . . Unusual and important. . . . Finding archival material to make possible a book like Human Remains is hard. MacDonald has struck gold. But even so, it takes conviction, consciousness and inner compasses to make use of the sources the way MacDonald does."?Eva Ahren, Journal of Social History