HC Deb 22 April 1828 vol 19 cc14-6
Mr. Warburton

said, he should trespass but for a very few moments on their patience in explaining the object of his motion. That object was simply the propagation of Anatomical Science, by facilitating a regular supply of Subjects for Dissection in our Schools of Surgery. Although our students in surgery were numerous, amounting perhaps in London, to six hundred or seven hundred, without including the country, if it were not for the difficulty experienced in providing subjects on which the professors might lecture, this number would be considerably increased; for it was ascertained that there were not less than two hundred English students in Paris, and about three hundred in Dublin, besides some in the Dutch, Flemish, and German shools of anatomy, whose only reason for retiring from their own country originated in the cheapness and facility with which they were supplied with subjects for dissection contrasted with the difficulty and expense which they experienced in prosecuting those studies at home. Taking the supply for these students at the rate of two subjects for each, the number of subjects required annually could not much exceed two thousand, if our schools were as full of students as we had a right to expect. How far this supply was aided by legal provision, might be conjectured from the fact, that there was no provision made by law for surrendering up to the College of Surgeons any bodies of malefactors, except murderers, who were found in London and Middlesex not to exceed five on an average in seven years. It was not his intention to trespass on the province of the medical gentlemen whose interests were more particularly at issue, by detailing the outline of the remedy which they believed they had it in their power to suggest to the House, to remove the difficulty existing in procuring a supply of subjects. He would nevertheless state a circumstance which proved that the growth of information tended to remove the repugnance to dissection which formed one of the most formidable obstacles in the path of science. A professor of celebrity, who had lectured on the osteology, before an assemblage of one thousand two hundred mechanics, proposed to continue his course of lectures on the human frame still further; these persons, although not accustomed to such an exhibition, expressed a wish to hear the lecturer treat of the softer parts of the body, and accordingly a disinterred subject was introduced, the face being concealed, and other precautions taken to render it less offensive; and, singular as it might appear, with the exception of two or three weak stomachs, all witnessed the dissection without either disgust or loathing: and the body was at that moment reduced to a skeleton, the property of the institution. The hon. member concluded by moving, "That a select committee be appointed to inquire into the manner of obtaining subjects for the Schools of Anatomy, and the state of the law affecting persons employed in obtaining or dissecting bodies."

Mr. John Smith

seconded the motion. The facility of supplying subjects for dissection would, he said, advance the interests of science. There were no set of men in the country to whom society was more indebted than to the surgeons and physicians. Numbers of young men were obliged to leave this and resort to foreign countries in search of the knowledge of their profession. If a supply of subjects could be had at home, in all probability none of these students would go abroad.

Mr. Secretary Peel

acknowledged that if ever he entertained a doubt as to the propriety of making some legislative provision on this head, it arose altogether from delicacy and a consciousness of the difficulty of combating successfully with old and confirmed prejudices. At the same time he would admit, it was not a light matter that so many eminent men should feel it necessary to appeal to that House, and state that they felt great difficulty in prosecuting their useful and humane inquiries, in consequence of the obstacles arising out of the present state of the law in this respect. He would be the last man to oppose those gentlemen in their wish to be heard before a committee of that House, if they could suggest a mode to procure a supply of the dead, without offending the feelings of the living. For the enlightened views, the pure philanthropy, and the liberal feelings of medical men generally, he felt so much respect, that he did not hesitate to pronounce them a blessing to their native land, and an honour to humanity; yet he would suggest the necessity of great caution in bringing forward a measure which seemed to conflict with the prejudices of mankind generally, and to wage war with those feelings of respect for the departed which extended beyond the grave. One of the worst possible topics to introduce into his speech was the calculation made by the hon. member, that two thousand dead bodies would be requisite yearly for the supply of the students of the metropolis. The only point, too, in which that hon. member's anecdote respecting the victory obtained over prejudice in the Mechanics' Institute failed, was, not that a few weak stomachs grew qualmish, but that none of those eager disciples of information had, in order to show their disdain of vulgar prejudices, justified the eulogium the hon. member had pronounced on them by offering their own bodies to be dissected; for this vulgar prejudice was not against seeing bodies dissected, but against being ourselves dissected. The attempt to supply the advantages derived from dissection by the substitution of wax models had been very properly denominated merely mangling the living instead of the dead. It had been suggested, that in order to in- crease the supply, the bodies of all persons dying under sentence for felony should be given up for dissection. To this it was objected, that the practice would diminish the horror felt for a murderer's doom. The hon. member should take particular care, in framing his remedy, that its effect should not be to raise the price of a subject, which was not impossible. In the present state of the public feeling, he should not oppose the appointment of a committee.

The motion was agreed to, and a committee appointed.

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