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Bringing out the dead to a live audience in Edinburgh

By Simon Usborne

Today 25 people will file into Edinburgh University's historic anatomy department to learn about the upper limb. A day of study will include lunch, as well as the use of plastic models and X-rays. Nothing remarkable there - but the first of six such workshops will also introduce the public to something that has been kept behind closed doors for almost 200 years: 'cadaveric material'.

"There will be an isolated upper limb that has been dissected so people can see the muscles, nerves and tendons as they appear in the human arm," says Tom Gillingwater, a professor of neuro-anatomy at the university. "Because the way to really learn anatomy is by handling the complex fabric of the human body."

When news first emerged of the classes, which will end with an examination of the head and neck in November, Gillingwater and his colleagues were troubled by the response. Headlines inevitably recalled Edinburgh's glorious but, at times, grisly association with anatomy.

In the early 19th century, when dissection was considered public entertainment, demand for bodies was booming with advances in medicine. But we were also hanging fewer criminals, strangling the leading supply of corpses.

In 1828, William Burke and William Hare tried to close the gap by murdering 16 people in Edinburgh. They sold the bodies to Robert Knox, a doctor whose public lectures were popular and lucrative.

'Burkers' across Britain committed the same crime, while 'resurrectionists' dug up fresh graves. When the extent of the trade became plain, a nation threw up.

The scandal led to the 1832 Anatomy Act, which regulated the discipline and the supply of bodies. Dissection stopped being part of the death penalty, and public lectures soon ceased (not before Burke's own public hanging and dissection, in 1829, a fate that Hare and Knox escaped).

Gillingwater says: "Anatomy has in many ways been locked away ever since. And yet the human body and the process of death is the most natural thing. When you lock it away, a mystique develops that breeds curiosity."

Laws governing the treatment of body parts have tightened further since the Burke and Hare scandal. Today, cadavers must be donated in advance, like organs but with much more paperwork. Gillingwater says anatomy departments now receive between 20 and 100 bodies a year.

Belfast Telegraph


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