HC Deb 11 June 1844 vol 75 cc523-34
Mr. Borthwick

, aware of the general interest taken in the Motion of the hon. Member for Sheffield, which stood for that evening, would state as briefly as possible the reasons which induced him to move for a Select Committee of that House to inquire into the operation of the Anatomy Act of 1832. He would assume it to be absolutely necessary for medical education and the promotion of medical science that the practice of morbid anatomy should be liberally carried on in our anatomical schools. He thanked the hon. Gentleman who introduced the Bill of 1832, as it was a great improvement on the former system; but he regretted to say that it nevertheless contained the seeds of that horrible system— he meant the system of resurrection, by which dead bodies were procured for the use of the dissecting-room, inasmuch as it did not provide against the sale of entire bodies, or the illegal possession of parts of the bodies. In consequence of this, a most abominable traffic connected with the supply of bodies, was carried on for the purpose of enriching particular schools, to the serious injury and detriment of other schools, and the serious impediment of anatomical science itself. If dead bodies were necessary for the advancement of the science, there ought to be an ample supply of them to all the schools indiscriminately throughout the country; but it was something worse than infamous that private individuals or teachers in schools should have the power of enriching themselves, unfairly towards other schools, and towards the community, by the sale of that which the Legislature had provided for the purposes of science only. The principle on which the Anatomy Bill was founded was, that wherever persons had died in the poor-house and friendless, their bodies were to be given over to certain schools for dissection, subject to certain provisions for their due interment with religious rites. This he conceived to be a barbarous principle, and he was utterly opposed to it. For if there was any one class of persons, who more than others, had a claim on the public generally for due and careful burial after death, it was the persons who died friendless. Were not the feelings of a man dying in a poor-house to be as much respected as those of the rich man, surrounded on his deathbed by friends and relations? The Act took account of the dead and the survivor, but it wholly disregarded the feelings of the dying. It was said, however, that these prejudices against dissection ought not to be cherished in the minds of the poor, that they ought to be made to see the importance of science to the human race, and that they ought to sacrifice their own natural feelings for the benefit of mankind. He did not, however, find that those who advised the poor to do these things began by setting them the example. Nor did he think that it was advisable that such feelings should be destroyed. The prejudices which it was sought to root out, were co-existent in the minds of the poor with the fundamental principles of humanity, and you could not remove them without deteriorating the character of mankind. To remove the terror which the Anatomy Act was calculated to excite in the minds of the poor—to provide that subjects should no longer be taken by law from the huts of friendless poverty, he sought for an inquiry into the operation of the Act by a Committee of that House. Of the extent to which the operation of the Anatomy Act went, some idea might be formed from the statement of Dr. Somerville, that in London alone 600 bodies were required per annum for the purposes of dissection. It was true that the Bill provided that all bodies left for dissection, should be decently interred with all due rites of religion—a humane provision, and one calculated to reconcile the public to the measure. But it was a delusion to suppose that that regulation was practically carried out. On the contrary, the bodies that had been subjected to dissection were notoriously the object of a most inhuman traffic and sale. They were separated, and the different parts sold to students. Any qualified person might, by paying for it, get the whole or parts of bodies at the different hospitals, avowedly for scientific purposes. These practices had been carried to such an extent, that the parish of Mary-le-bone had within the last twelve months or two years, refused to deliver any more subjects for dissection. He had been taunted for having promoted this question by a noxious agitation. The subject might be a noxious one and offensive to the delicate nerves of hon. Members of that House; but they had the authority of the right hon. Baronet himself for saying that the agitation had had the effect of putting an end to some of the worst abuses that had been engendered under the Act. Many of the evils arising out of the operation of the Act might be obviated by the adoption of Mr. Roberts's antiseptic process. On the subject of that process a petition had already been for some time before the House, which was printed for the use of Members, and which fully stated the whole of Mr. Roberts's case. The importance of Mr. Roberts's invention was sufficiently shown by the certificate signed by some of the leading men in the profession, which he would read:— We, the undersigned surgeons and anatomical teachers in London, have witnessed the effects of a liquid, prepared and employed by Mr. William Roberts, for the purpose of preserving animal bodies from putrefaction. We are convinced, from what we have seen, that Mr. Roberts's preparation is capable of keeping in a fresh, moist, and inoffensive state the flesh of animals, and we think that it may become, in this way, of important use to surgeons and students of anatomy, and that it may be made to promote materially the objects of the Anatomical Bill. We shall be glad if any means can be devised by which this discovery may be made cheaply available to the profession, without obliging its inventor to tie it up by patent right.

  • "B. C. BRODIE.
  • "R. O. GRAINGER.
  • "B. B. COOPER.
  • "R. B. TODD."
Mr. Roberts had in vain endeavoured, through the hon. Member for Bridport and other hon. Members, to obtain a remuneration for his invention. The leading men in the profession wished him to endeavour to get some remuneration from the public, and to devote the invention to the public use, instead of obtaining a patent. There were two advantages derivable from the invention of Mr. Roberts— the first was, that a less number of bodies could by its use be made to serve the wants of the dissecting room; and the other, that when they had been subjected to dissection they were still so preserved that they could be buried according to the provisions of the Act. It therefore seemed to him that the supporters of the Act were interested in the adoption of the plan. The hon. Gentleman concluded by moving for the appointment of a Select Committee to inquire into the operation of the Anatomy Act.

Mr. Hardy

seconded the Motion. The Government by agreeing to the appointment of this Committee would vindicate its own character, and soothe the feelings of the people. The operation of the Act had, in his opinion, been discreditable to the Government.

Sir J. Graham

thought he should best consult the feelings of the House on this occasion by replying with studious brevity. Although the subject appeared to be peculiarly attractive to the hon. Member for Evesham, yet certainly to the great majority of that House it was most revolting. The hon. Member who seconded the Motion, thought the character of the Government at stake, and that inquiry ought to be granted to soothe the feelings of the public, but for neither of these considerations should he think it consistent with his duty to grant an inquiry, when satisfied, as he was, that inquiry would be injurious to the public interests, and so far from soothing public feelings, he believed this discussion was calculated to irritate, excite, and wound them. He therefore at once said, it would be his duty to resist the Motion of the hon. Gentleman. Both the hon. Gentlemen who had preceded him had made some unintentional misrepresentations. It was true the 7th Clause gave any person in possession of a body right to sell it for anatomical purposes, but the Clause limited that right by. a proviso, that if the party dying, even in the last extremity, expressed a wish that his body should not be examined, no person, however nearly related, should have the power to dispose of it; and again, that no body claimed by any relative, however distant, should be subject to examination if that relative objected. The hon. Member for Evesham had stated few grounds for a Committee of Inquiry. He first objected to the general policy of the measure, and next he alleged a personal grievance; and perhaps, but for the latter, the House would never have heard anything of the former. But the hon. Gentleman, in impugning the policy of the Bill, made two large admissions in its favour; first, that it had given undisturbed repose to the ashes of the dead, and secondly that it had saved human life from the attacks of ruffians like Hare and Burke; could two greater benefits have been conferred on society by this Bill? And yet, after making these admissions, the hon. Member wished for a Select Committee to inquire into the policy of the measure. Even if there was an objection to the policy of the Act, that was a question for the House and not for a Committee, to determine, and the hon. Gentleman should bring in a Bill to repeal or to amend the existing law. The hon. Gentleman said that parts of bodies were publicly sold by unlicensed persons; he doubted the fact, but if it were true, it was an infraction of the existing law, and any party so offending was liable to punishment. Every body that was examined was reported to the inspector, and the inspector reported to the Home Secretary 'quarterly, as to all the bodies examined, how they were distributed; the name, age, &c, of the deceased; so that the identity of the body could be ascertained; and the distribution of the bodies to the several schools of anatomy was also reported, and security was taken that the remains should be decently interred. On this latter point it was said there had been an infraction of the law. The late Government had appointed a Commission to inquire into the general working of the measure. Since the present Government had come into office a more particular inquiry had been instituted. Mr. Green, the eminent surgeon, who had, in the first instance, expressed a favourable opinion towards Mr. Roberts, and Mr. Rogers, Q.C., and Deputy Judge Advocate, being the Commissioners. They carefully investigated the matter, and some additional regulations were adopted by their advice, but the allegations generally made against the working of the law turned out to be incorrect. It appeared, therefore, that there had been full inquiry, and regulations had been adopted which the Government believed would be quite effectual. If any violation of the law occurred, notice given to the Home Office would secure immediate attention. The Bill had secured for science an ample supply of subjects, without which surgery as a science could not make any progress. There had been no violation of public decency—no wounding of public feeling—and the silence with which it had been carried into execution was the best proof of its success. So much for the policy of the measure. He now came to the personal grievance. It was said that the late Government unfairly obtained possession of Mr. Roberts's secret; but at that very moment the preparation used by Mr. Roberts still remained a secret. Mr. Roberts had applied to him for an investigation, and he tendered him one before the College of Surgeons; but Mr. Roberts demanded fresh securities for the preservation of his secret, and sought to impose conditions. It was true, that in 1836, Sir Astley Cooper, and Sir Benjamin Brodie, and other eminent men, did entertain favourable opinions of the discovery; but he had reason to think that Sir Astley Cooper changed his opinion before his death, and as to Sir B. Brodie, he was authorised to state, that Sir B. Brodie was now satisfied, from investigation, that the discovery, whatever other merits it might have, was not of such a nature as to make it generally available for anatomical purposes. An experiment had been made at Guy's Hospital since 1836, and every opportunity had been given to Mr. Roberts to prove the utility of his invention. Mr. Roberts tried his experiment on several subjects, and with respect to the whole of them, he had been informed that Mr. Roberts had entirely failed. No one experiment had been so successful, he was informed, as to entitle Mr. Roberts to public reward. It was not enough that a body should be preserved merely for anatomical purposes, it was requisite that the muscles, nerves, and fibres should be fresh and perfect, and in speaking of saving the number of bodies required, the House must remember that it was not sufficient for a student to see the knife used, but that he must be accustomed to use it himself. This went to the real merits of Mr. Roberts's claim. There was no doubt that Mr. Roberts's fluid was antiseptic, but not sufficiently so for anatomical purposes. With every respect for a Committee of that House, he did not consider that a question of this kind — painful to consider, and still more painful to discuss— was a fit subject for inquiry. So far as the policy of the measure was interwoven with the Motion, it was clear that the House, and not a Committee, was the place to discuss it; and he must add it was most suspiciously interwoven. He much feared that Mr. Roberts, if no reward were given him for this alleged discovery, was determined to bring the Anatomy Act itself into disrepute. On these grounds he trusted the House would agree with him in refusing the Motion.

Mr. French

denied, on Mr. Roberts's authority, the statement made by the right hon. Baronet as to the experiment in Guy's Hospital. That experiment was made, not on sixteen bodies, but on four and a half, and was perfectly successful. It was notorious that upwards of 300 paupers had been dissected between the years 1839 and 1841. It was true that Dr. Somerville had been removed, and he gave credit to the right hon. Baronet for this and other corrections of abuses, but many still existed. It was well known that parts of bodies were still sold, and there was a regular market-price for a leg or an arm; and it was also notorious that the masters of workhouses received money for the bodies of the paupers, and after thus disposing of them they entered them in the dead-book as having been buried by their friends. It was clear, then, that the Act did not work beneficially, and the prejudice that existed against it was manifest from the number of parishes that had protested against the pauper bodies being given for dissection. Believing that, he would vote for the Motion.

Mr. Warburton

disliked the discussion of such a subject, and would gladly have contented himself with appealing to the practical operation of the Anatomy Act. Anatomical schools were established, in London, Dublin, and Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, and all large towns, wherever great hospitals existed; yet we had never heard now from any authentic source any well established instances of the bad working of the measure. The study of anatomy was essential to the practice of medicine and surgery; and nothing could have enabled the students to have the necessary opportunity of examining the human system but the measure to which he referred. If the enormities which formerly existed had continued, the Government would have been compelled to put an end to the study of anatomy by the human subject. When Mr. Roberts had first applied to him to assist him in his object of obtaining a grant of money in consideration of the disclosure of this process, he had certainly required to be satisfied that it was not only effective but economical and expeditious, and, on being informed of its nature, he had satisfied himself of its being so; but, upon hearing that Mr. Roberts had carried on an agitation against the Anatomy Act, he declined further proceedings with the matter till persuaded by Sir G. Sinclair. He had been "soft'' enough to resume his application to Government recommending a much smaller sum, however, than was required by Mr. Roberts. The Home-office rejected the proposal, and then it appeared that various anatomical authorities, especially the Anatomical Society, had described the process as inefficient. Mr. Roberts had endeavoured to excite prejudices in the popular mind against the operation of the Anatomy Act, and had addressed a letter to the Government declaring his determination, unless they took up his process and remunerated him for its disclosure, to obstruct the distribution of bodies through the metropolitan parishes. And this gentleman had published placards of which one read thus:— The method pursued now in procuring and examining dead bodies is destructive, mercenary, and disgusting; destructive, because it entails upon students the risk of death through contact with putrid bodies; mercenary, because the system involves the extraction of the largest amount of fees without regarding the advancement of science; disgusting, because by leaving the dead in a rotten state, more are wasted than are used. Mr. Roberts had tried to force himself into some workhouses with the object of circulating such placards as these, in another of which he spoke of "the practice of sending thousands of the bodies of paupers and of other friendless persons for dissection;" and this gentleman had held meetings in public houses for the purpose of exciting all possible prejudice and ill-feeling against the operation of the present measure. Various charges had been brought against Dr. Somerville; but a commission of inquiry having been appointed by the Government, not a tittle of evidence was produced to substantiate them.

Alderman Copeland

said, that for some years past he had moved for certain Returns on this subject, which, although ordered every year to be made, yet from some unfortunate circumstance or another, they had never been furnished to the House. He must say, that on a previous evening this Session, when the subject had been brought before the right hon. Baronet the Home Secretary, that right hon. Gentleman had, he thought, replied to it most satisfactorily. The Commission was issued, and the whole of the allegations which had been made against the conduct of the Inspector of Anatomy had ended simply in the cases of two bodies of paupers having been buried in the Wesleyan churchyard. The proprietor of this burial-ground was one of his Common Council, and he had reason to think that there were hundreds buried in these fields. He thought it somewhat extraordinary, that from the day that Commission (which had been so often alluded to) had been appointed, up to the present time, no Report had been made by the Commissioners to the Secretary of State. He believed, that this Anatomy Act had been for a series of years made the instrument of jobbing, with the view of giving an income to the University College. He thought that this was a subject worthy of the serious attention of the Government, who ought to appoint some persons to supervise the conduct of those against whom such allega- tions as the present had been brought, and to Report on the Subject occasionally to the House.

Sir J. Graham

in justice to Dr. Somerville was bound to say, that the whole of the charges made against him were submitted to the Commission, and were by them investigated, and they had reported that none of them were true, except that of the burial of a person in the Globe Fields.

Mr. T. Duncombe

had always under-Stood that a Minister of the Crown should never refer to any official Report which was not virtually laid upon the Table of the House. A Commission was appointed to investigate these charges, but it was somewhat extraordinary that no copy of the evidence taken before such Commission had ever been furnished to that House nor any Report founded upon such evidence. The right hon. Baronet had, however, thought proper to quote from this Report in his opposition to the Motion of the hon. Member for Evesham. They, however, knew nothing of this Report— indeed it was that they sought to be informed of. It was not fair or candid towards the public to refer to documents of that sort which the House was not as yet in possession of. If this Act had worked in a proper manner—if no such abuses had been practised under it as had been alleged —why not have the Report of the Commission laid on the Table of the House? This debate would no doubt excite extraordinary feelings of indignation in the minds of the public for the manner in which they had been treated. The determination of the House and the Government to burke all inquiry into this subject was quite apparent. It was no doubt a most delicate subject, and perhaps one that ought not to have been brought before the House. He was not expressing any opinion upon that point; but having been brought before it, they were bound to deal with it in some way or other, so as to satisfy the public. He regretted that the new fluid invention of Mr. Roberts had been put forward in his petition, inasmuch as it exposed him to the charge of being influenced by some sort of mercenary motives, as had been attributed to him by some hon. Gentlemen opposite. This had nothing to do with the nature of the Motion that the hon. Member for Evesham had brought before the House, which was to inquire into the operation of the Anatomy Act, and not into this inven- tion. The hon. Alderman opposite had stated, that there had been much jobbing carried on under the Act—if so, it was high time for the House to inquire into it. He knew that much abuse had existed with regard to the Holborn Union, where they had been supplying the schools of anatomy with the bodies of the paupers at a considerable profit to a certain party. Many complaints had been made in the various petitions which had been presented on this subject to the House by parties who could not be accused of having any sinister motives. Such petitions had been presented from Holborn, and from his own constituents complaining that the remains of paupers did not receive Christian burial. He believed that a stronger feeling existed in the breasts of the poor with regard to the remains of their relatives than even in those of the rich. It was a subject which this House must inquire into. It was distinctly proved before the Committee on the subject of Health of Towns, that the bodies of paupers had been buried in an improper manner, and the service of the dead had been read by a man who had merely put a surplice on for that purpose.

Lord J. Russell

said, that if all the proceedings under the Anatomy Act, were to he made subjects of continual discussion in that House, and if every inflammatory statement were to be made the ground of special inquiry, he was afraid they would be unable to withstand the clamour which would be raised, and that they would be obliged to repeal the Act. In this case they would have revived those abuses and even those horrible crimes which were perpetrated before the passing of the Anatomy Act. An hon. Gentleman said, that some person in a workhouse had made a profit by the sale of the dead bodies of the paupers. In that case the Guardians of the Union ought to have investigated the conduct of their officer, and have dismissed him if the charge were true. With respect to the invention of Mr. Roberts, he (Lord J. Russell) had been in hopes that it would have greatly tended to the advancement of anatomical science, and it was only after submitting the subject to the consideration of persons competent to judge, and obtaining their opinion, that it would not be beneficial in the way he had expected, that he desisted from proposing any reward or making any Motion on the subject. The right hon. Gen- tleman, who had succeeded him in office, had not felt it necessary to pursue a different course; but Mr. Roberts had gone on agitating, with the hope of getting his discovery adopted. He trusted that the Government would not be influenced by threats of any kind, to favour an individual at the expense of the public, and he hoped also that House would not agree to the proposed Motion.

The House divided:—Ayes 10; Noes 49: Majority 39.

List of the AYES.
Barnard, E. G. Granger, T. C.
Bright, J. Johnson, Gen.
Browne, hon. W. Napier, Sir C.
Cobden, R.
Copeland, Ald. TELLERS.
Duncombe, T. Borthwick, P.
Fielden J. French, F.
List of the NOES.
Aglionby, H. A. Lennox, Lord A.
Aldam, W. Lincoln, Earl of
Archbold, R. Mainwaring, T.
Arkwright, G. Norreys, Sir D. J.
Barron, Sir H. W. O'Ferrall, R. M.
Bellew, R. M. Peel, rt. hn. Sir R.
Bowring. Dr. Price, R.
Brocklehvrst, J. Rawdon, Col.
Brotherton, J. Redington, T. N.
Busfield, W. Ross, D. R.
Butler, hon. Col. Russell, Lord J.
Chapman, B. Shaw, rt. hn. F.
Curteis, H. B. Somerset, Lord G.
Douglas, Sir C. E. Stanley, E.
Duncan G. Stuart, W. V.
Eliot, Lord Stock, Mr. Serjt.
Escott, B. Sutton, hn. H. M.
Forster, M. Tufnell, H.
Fremantle, rt. hn. Sir T. Walsh, Sir J. B.
Gladstone, rt. hn. W. E. Warburton, H.
Gladstone, Capt. Ward, H. G.
Goulbeurn, rt. hn. H. Wawn, J. T.
Graham, rt. hn. Sir J. Wyse, T.
Greenaway, C. TELLERS.
Hamilton, W. J. Young, J.
Knatchball, rt hn Sir E. Pringle, A.