Mythical Bodies (A Frenzied Dissection)

“….they do confirm that the insane poor were not subjected in death to a single medical gaze, but instead one ‘now refracted by many other “gazes”- a theme repeated throughout the issue. Asylum medical staff, the body dealer, a dissector and his assistant, the museum curator who prepared pathology specimens, the undertaker and the rector who buried what was left, all looked at the corpse. In the majority of dissection rooms the bodies of the insane came in with a name written in chalk on a recycled parish coffin. They were given a number by the dissector on duty who entered lunatic cases into THE ‘ Abnormalities and Deformities’ dissection book. This meant that he could tally up the bits of human remains ‘cut to the extremities’. It is also important to appreciate that better preservation techniques meant that cadavers were worked on for a month in the 1840s, six months by 1870 and almost a year by 1900. The insane poor were a ragbag of human material at the end of the teaching process their identity eroded by dissection. They were treated as ‘matter out of place’ by the Victorian medical community.”


Elizabeth T Hurren ‘Abnormalities and Deformities: the dissection and interment of the insane poor, 1832-1929


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