HC Deb 17 January 1832 vol 9 cc578-85
Mr. Warburton,

in moving the Second Reading of the Bill for regulating Schools of Anatomy, said, that he should not feel it necessary to detain the House at this stage upon a Bill, the principle of which had been recognized and acted upon by a former House of Commons.

Sir Robert Inglis

thought, that something more was due to the House than the brief announcement of the hon. Gentleman, that a Bill of a similar character had been already before them, as there were several objections to the principle of this Bill, which required to be obviated before it could have his assent. On a former occasion he had endeavoured to introduce a clause into that Bill without success—which, however, he was glad to observe, was a distinct enactment in the present Bill, and separated dissection from the crime of murder. He considered it inexpedient that such a penalty should remain on the Statute Books, while they were endeavouring to procure subjects to facilitate the study of anatomy, from poor-houses and hospitals. This was undoubtedly an improvement—but there were also omissions. One was, that no provision was made for the decent interment of the remains of those persons who had been the subjects of anatomical investigation. But the great principle to which the hon. Member ought to have directed the attention of the House was, the paramount necessity of procuring the means to facilitate the study of surgery. He believed the science of anatomy could not at present be legally followed. He was satisfied that the study of that science was necessary for the successful practice of medicine, and that, therefore, some means must be taken to remedy the present state of the law. He had ascertained, that during last year there were only eleven bodies which could be legally disposed of as subjects, and these were to supply 800 students of medicine, who ought to have obtained, at least, for the necessary completion of their education, one or more subjects, each. He did not mean to say that this Bill would not remedy that deficiency, but what he complained of was, that the operation of the clause which went to provide subjects would chiefly fall upon the poorer classes. The Bill provided, that any person "having the lawful custody of a body" might permit it to be anatomized. These words would include the keeper of a workhouse, or the head of an hospital. In the former Bill a provision had been introduced, allowing persons to dispose of their bodies after death; perhaps that provision might be improved upon by a registry of such sales being kept, which should state the sum paid, and all other particulars. A party should also have the power of rescinding such a contract by repaying double the amount. This would prevent frauds upon the purchasers. But the great point he desired to establish was, that poverty should not necessarily subject its unhappy victim to the knife of the anatomist. Prisoners, also, who died in gaol, ought not to be exposed to dissection without the consent of their relatives. These were points he wished to see amended in the Bill, and he was fully satisfied that some measure of the kind was necessary.

Mr. Cresset Pelham

felt satisfied that while men, from sordid motives, could be induced to commit such crimes as those which had lately excited so much horror in the metropolis, none but the strongest measures could be effectual to prevent a repetition of them. He did not take the present Bill to be one of that kind; and, therefore, if upon that ground only, he should be disposed to object to it. Perhaps it might be necessary to inflict some punishment upon the receivers of bodies as well as those who obtained them unlawfully. He was not so impressed with the indispensable necessity of procuring subjects as some other hon. Gentlemen appeared to be. In time of war the field of battle furnished enough of subjects, and there surgeons might obtain a competent knowledge of anatomy. He considered the Bill to be surrounded by serious difficulties. On the one hand it could not be overlooked, that the present high price of subjects operated as a bounty on unlawful means of obtaining them; and on the other, by confining the operation of the Bill, in a great degree, to the poorer classes, it must tend to perpetuate existing prejudices against a practice, which the usage of devoting the bodies of murderers only for the purpose of dissection had invested with the most ignominious associations. He did not conceive dissection to be so absolutely necessary to the advancement of science, as that the feelings of individuals, indeed of the country at large, should be shocked by the means necessarily resorted to to procure a sufficient supply of subjects. But, at all events, considering that the present Bill would give a legal encouragement to the traffic in human blood, he would decidedly oppose it.

Mr. Hume

said, the hon Member could not have attended to the evidence given by the highest medical authority, that only about ten or twelve bodies could be legally had during the year, while 1100 or 1200 were wanted, and of which 900 were actually obtained. The inducement to murder for the sale of the body of the victim resulted from the high price which could be obtained for subjects for anatomy. The effect of the present Bill would be to reduce that price, and consequently to lessen the premium, if not entirely to remove the inducement to murder. The hon. Member who spoke last must have forgotten, when he alluded to the facilities which were afforded to the study of anatomy in time of war, that those to whom those facilities were afforded were men who must previously have completed their surgical education. The object of the measure now proposed was, to give some facility to the study of anatomy to those who had yet to learn. Thirty years ago, subjects could be procured for 2l. or 3l., but now they could not be had for less than 10l.: was not the Legislature, therefore, bound to guard against the repetition of such atrocious crimes as had been lately committed, by reducing the temptation to commit them? There might be some difference of opinion with regard to the details of the Bill, but he trusted, that in the Committee these might be so improved as to give general satisfaction. He had been informed by a medical gentleman, that he had found it necessary to prohibit wholly any subjects being brought to his dissecting rooms, for fear of giving any encouragement to the horrid practices of assassination which had recently prevailed. The study of surgery must necessarily suffer from such impediments and difficulties. No person could be more anxious than he was to prevent individual feelings from being lacerated, and he hoped that that was guarded against, by the provision introduced into the Bill, that the body of no person should be dissected without his consent being previously obtained, or that of his nearest relative. He should, therefore, vote for its being read a second time.

Mr. Perceval

thought, that after the crimes which had lately been perpetrated, some measure should be introduced which would effectually prevent a recurrence of them. To this end, he thought it would be wise to bring in a temporary measure, which should make the possession of a body obtained for the purposes of anatomy, an offence liable to the same penalties as those inflicted for felony. A bill of that kind, operating for a particular period—for instance, for two years—would he conceived, be the best check to the horrible and revolting crime which had taken its name from Burke. The absolute necessity of dissection for the space of two years could not be argued, because every one must feel convinced that there were at the present moment in this country enough of medical men, perfectly skilled in the science of anatomy, to meet any emergency that might occur within that period. Those who were anxious to gain experience and expertness in the use of the knife (and it was to that that the attention of many young men was materially directed) might find in the dissection of animals nearly all the advantage which could result from the mere mutilation of human bodies. Looking upon the present Bill as one which would lead to the violation of one of the feelings most strongly implanted in our nature, without, at the same time, offering a strong and decided check to the crime to which he had alluded, he should certainly feel himself bound to oppose it.

Mr. Frederick Pollock

differed from the hon. Member who had just sat down. As every surgeon had frequent occasion to perform on the living subject operations necessary for the preservation of life, cessation in the practice of qualifying himself for such operations for two years would materially impair his efficiency. He, therefore, approved of the principle of the Bill, although he conceived some of its provisions to be unnecessary, as only going to legalize that against which there was no law. It was provided, for example, that it should be lawful with his own consent, or the consent of his nearest known relative, to permit the body of any person to undergo anatomical examination. That power already belonged to executors. Another clause made it lawful for a medical man to examine a body after death, provided he had the consent of the party in whose lawful custody it was. This would appear to throw a doubt upon the present ability of medical persons legally to examine the body after death. The Bill also assumed, that no medical student had a right to be in possession of any part of a dead body, although it was very doubtful if such a law was in existence. Every one, he thought, must feel the necessity of some provision being made for the supply of subjects for anatomy, since it was a manifest absurdity that surgeons who were considered civilly—nay, often even criminally—guilty of crime, if they committed a mistake in their practice, should be debarred, from the only means of attaining a competent knowledge of their profession. He admitted, that if public horror was excited, by the manner in which the study of anatomy was practised, it ought to be put down, but where it was conducted in privacy, he did not see why it should be unlawful for a medical practitioner to be in possession of a subject. Bodies were frequently imported from foreign countries, and this Bill presumed, that it was already unlawful to be in possession of such bodies, or even of mummies. At the same time, he wished that every care should be taken to prevent the bodies of even the humblest classes from being disposed of without the full consent of their relatives, as a feeling of affection for the remains of their friends was very prevalent among such persons, and he was the last man to think of trifling with their feelings in that respect.

Mr. Hunt

said, he was most anxious that the hon. Member who had introduced the Bill, should have given his reasons for bringing forward such a measure, as it was evident from the observations of the hon. and learned Gentleman who had just sat down, that it would be found perfectly inoperative, seeing that the only two clauses authorizing parties to possess and dispose of bodies, gave no more power for such purposes than already existed. This Bill gave a power to persons to dispose of bodies, but they were persons who ought not to have that power; for not only, as had been said by the hon. member for the University of Oxford,might work-house-keepers disposeof dead bodies under its enactments, but gaolers, also, who had the custody of persons who died in debt, and undertakers, likewise, for both of these might have lawful possession of bodies. But whatever might be the nature of a Bill to be passed for such purposes, its operation would principally fall upon the poor. He was not such a Goth or Vandal as to wish to impede the study of surgery and anatomy, but he held it as a matter of great regret that some bill had not been brought forward to prevent the practice of "Burking;" a practice which had been carried on of late to such an extent, that he was surprised it had not come under the special notice of Ministers. The legal price to be given for dead bodies would, under this Bill, act as a premium to needy people to neglect their relatives. What would be much more beneficial than anything contained in this Bill, would be to throw open the hospitals throughout England, instead of suffering them to be monopolized as they now were. He himself knew, some years ago, and he had been recently again informed upon the best authority, that the conduct of the young students in the dissecting-room was too often perfectly disgusting—too disgusting to be described even in an assembly like that, composed as it was entirely of men. He regretted, that the Mover of this Bill had not been able to devise a better plan to accomplish his object, for there were many clauses in the Bill which he should feel bound to oppose. They ought not to be satisfied with saying that the relative of a party might give his body up for dissection if the party himself had not forbidden it, but they ought to insist upon the party's mark or signature, made in the presence of two witnesses, to prove such assent; for there could be no doubt that the poverty-stricken wretch, who would wish to dispose of the dead body of a relative, would take care not to let his expressed desire to the contrary be known.

The Attorney General

thought, that the hon. Gentleman was mistaken in supposing that his hon. and learned friend opposite could have meant to say that this Bill did not give executors greater powers than they now possessed. He recollected a case in which a party was convicted and brought up before the Judges of the King's Bench, and punished for having part of a dead body in his possession. The hon. member for Preston appeared to require some new law to be passed to prevent the practice of "Burking;'' but what kind of law would he have? "Burking" was murder, the punishment for which was as great as possible. The difficulty with respect to "Burking" was its detection; it was generally found, that the more severe was the punishment for an offence, in the same degree was the difficulty in detecting it. The obvious and only mode of preventing this crime was, to take away the motive or inducement to it; and that could only be done by diminishing the price of subjects. At present, medical men must pay for the murder as well as for the corpse; but by making the corpse, in future, easily procurable, all temptation to murder would be removed. At any rate, whatever might be the mischief likely to arise from the legalized sale of dead bodies, the prejudice against it must be removed by reflecting on the still greater mischief of not endeavouring, at least, to put a stop to the frightful practices which had lately prevailed in London.

Mr. Warburton

said, he should very shortly reply to some of the observations which had been made on the present occasion, without going into any detail with respect to the principle of the measure. He had heard it remarked that he had brought forward this Bill in this Houses, but hon. Members must know how difficult it was, except upon matters of great public or political interest, for any individual, bringing forward a measure, to obtain a large assembly of Members; and when those matters of public interest were brought forward, they engrossed and absorbed the whole time of the House; so that, unless advantage were taken of such evenings as the present, it was vain for any private individual to attempt to originate a legislative enactment. The hon. Baronet (Sir Robert Inglis) had said, that he had made no introductory statement with respect to the Bill; but this had been done when it was first introduced, and he had then fully explained the principal clause—which allowed permission to be given for the anatomical examination of a body, except where the party himself desired that such an examination should not take place, or the nearest known relative of the deceased should refuse his consent to such dissection. He did not think that he could go further towards consulting the wishes and feelings of individuals; and these clauses, it must be remembered, applied to the rich as well as to the poor; although, no doubt, the bodies of the poor would be more numerous than those of the rich, because the poor were in greater numbers than the rich; but the principle of the Bill applied equally to both. Although he had not been successful in founding a Bill upon the Report of a Committee of 1829, he was happy to observe that the labours of that Committee had not been entirely useless; for the Representatives of the free Republican States of Massachusetts having appointed a Committee to inquire into the subject, that Committee had quoted largely from their report, in that which they themselves had made; and, ultimately, a bill was founded upon their report, without its being considered that injury was done to the feelings of any part of the community by provision being made for this want of subjects. People talked of science as a matter of curiosity—for the mere gratification of those who had leisure, rather than as one of the noblest and most beneficial acquirements of man; they talked as if surgery were like astronomy, or mathematics, and as if it were not a matter of absolute necessity that means should be provided for curing the wounds and injuries to which the bodies of the poor were liable as well as the rich. The latter would always be able to pay for the very best treatment; and if it were necessary that a medical student should go to France or Germany to complete his anatomical education, they could defray the expense consequent upon his so doing; but if the wounds and injuries of the poor were to be cured, the means by which those who are to attend them are to acquire their knowledge must be rendered cheap and accessible. He would beg leave to conclude the few observations he had thought it necessary to make, in reply to what had fallen from hon. Gentlemen, with this general remark, that, as long as the Judges found it necessary to inflict punishment for transactions such as those which had been adverted to in the debate, so long would it be necessary for the Members of the Legislature to consider whether the evils arising out of the law could not be remedied by enactments of their own.

Question put that the Bill be read a second time.—There not being forty Members present, the House adjourned.