HL Deb 02 February 1832 vol 9 cc1148-52
The Duke of Sussex

My Lords—I have the honour to present to your Lordships the humble Petition of the President and the Commonalty of the Faculty of Physic in London, praying your Lordships' serious and immediate attention, to enacting some legislative measure for the promotion of the study of anatomy, and which they humbly submit, may be materially aided by the repeal of the act for the dissection and anatomy of murderers, and by allowing the opening of the body of any individual, provided he should not have expressed any wish to the contrary previous to his death, or that his relations should not evince any objection on the subject. The petitioners assure your Lordships, that in applying to your right hon. House, they are not prompted by any motives of interest, either in their individual or corporate capacity, but solely by their wish to promote the objects of humanity and the welfare of society. From the great anxiety that has been expressed by the public on this most interesting subject, I do not conceive that a petition of greater importance could come before your Lordships, nor one in which society in general is more particularly interested. Your petitioners state, and they state it rightly, that towards the improvement of physic and surgery no study can contribute so much as that of anatomy; that in their examination of applicants to practice, it is one of the peculiar branches in which they make the most minute and strict inquiries, requiring the applicants to be well acquainted with it. Indeed, such is the advantage which has already been derived from the improvement of medical science in this line of study, that, comparing the value of life as now estimated to what it was 100 years ago, it has absolutely doubled. In proof of this argument, I have only to refer your Lordships to the books of the various insurance offices. Not only, my Lords, is the study of this science enjoined by the Faculty from which I present this petition, and by all similar institutions in various parts of this empire, but the law of the land visits with punishment any person who may mismanage his patient through ignorance of his art; and yet, at the same time that it thus requires the student to make himself thoroughly acquainted with his profession, it, by another law, prohibits the means by which he may acquire such information; for, by the com- mon law of this country, it is a misdemeanour for any one to have a dead body in his house, unless the person had died under his roof. I am glad to have my noble and learned friend—if he will allow me to call him so—(Lord Eldon) listening to my statement, as I delayed presenting the petition until there was a full attendance in the house, and that I might be assisted by the knowledge of learned Lords, so far as to set me right if I make any erroneous statement. I repeat, then, my Lords, that there are several trials upon record, which show that practitioners, as well as students, have been prosecuted for having dead bodies in their houses, and have suffered the punishment either of fine or imprisonment for such misdemeanour. As to that part of the petition which goes to repeal the Statute against murderers, I cannot say I go the full length which is prayed for in the petition, but I am most anxious, my Lords, to go along with the feelings of the public; I do not wish to wound those of any man, and I respect the motives of those who may think differently from me on the subject, but still I do think, my Lords, that all classes of society, especially the lower, will be benefited by some legislative enactment on this most important subject, which might be passed after due consideration, and bearing in mind, that no one is to be subjected to any act which militates against his feelings, and is at variance with a due sense of decency and propriety. In the year 1745, the surgeons were separated from the Barbers' Company by royal charter, and from that time the science has gradually improved, and the members who now compose that body are persons of as high education as in any other profession; many of them possess every qualification suited to a gentleman and a scholar. To such persons, my Lord, it, is a subject of deep regret that, obliged as they are to prosecute their studies for the benefit of mankind, they are reduced not only to act contrary to the laws, but also to come in contact with persons of the lowest and vilest class, such as those who, by a vulgar appellation, are called "body-snatchers;" who, proceeding from one crime to another, acquire such total disregard for all moral propriety, that, for the sake of lucre, they commit the crime of sacrilege and robbery, and at last finish by the foulest of crimes—that, of murder—for the sole purpose of turning the body of the sufferer to their own private gains. Indeed, my Lords, I cannot conceive a more dreadful state of things; and recollecting what I myself heard on the trials of certain individuals on a late occasion, I cannot conceal my own feelings while presenting this petition, which, permit me, my Lords, to observe, is presented for the benefit of the poor much more than of the rich. Your Lordships, as well as myself, if we are in want either of surgical or medical advice, shall, no doubt, be able to pay persons well instructed in their profession, and who for want of the means in this country have been compelled to pursue their studies abroad; while the poorer classes of society, and your army and navy, will have to seek for assistance at the hands of ignorant and ill-educated persons, who will mangle their bodies, and injure their constitutions, from want of that scientific knowledge of the art, which, if the present system be continued, they will be precluded from obtaining; and yet I have been startled by an observation which an individual made to me, that there was something disgraceful in a member of a scientific body taking share in the sentence pronounced against such a criminal. But, my Lords, I do think that the public at large are not fully aware of the object of that Statute which was passed in the reign of George 2nd, and which was intended specifically to prevent any chance of Christian burial to a murderer. In all other executions a part of the melancholy ceremony consists in reading the burial service to the criminal previous to his being launched into eternity, after which his body is delivered over to his friends or relations, who bury him at their own pleasure. In the case of murder this service is totally omitted; and with criminals of that class, after execution, they are sentenced to be dissected and anatomized—in other words, the body to be separated, and made into anatomical preparations, which precludes any possibility of its receiving Christian burial; and this I take to be the meaning of the law. To show your Lordships in what little esteem surgery was generally held, I have only to quote an Act of Parliament passed in the reign of Henry 3rd, when the barbers and surgeons were classed as one company, and when they were allowed four bodies a-year, which they might obtain of felons who were executed—a small number indeed in those days, and which now would be considered totally insufficient, when we have upwards of 2,000 students learning the profession in this city alone. I therefore pray, my Lords, that the prayer of the petitioners may be taken into your Lordships' most serious consideration, to the end that measures may be adopted, under the sanction of the Legislature, to secure the means of facilitating the study of anatomy in particular, and the science of medicine in general.

The Earl of Eldon

stated, that the illustrious Duke had given a correct description of the law on the subject to which he had referred, but it was one thing to give up for dissection the bodies of those consenting, and quite another to say that the bodies of those who had not consented, or whose surviving relatives evinced any repugnance should be dissected. He agreed with much that had fallen from the illustrious Peer by whom the petition had been presented, and with many of the sentiments which it contained, fully assenting to the assertion that the state of public feeling on the subject throughout the country demanded that some change should be immediately made in the law.

The Duke of Sussex

said, I have heard with extreme pleasure what has just fallen from my noble and learned friend—if he will allow me to call him so—and I am very glad to find my opinions confirmed by him. I am sincerely anxious that this subject should occupy your Lordships' cool and attentive consideration. I am, as I have already said, most anxious that the feelings of individuals should be, as much as possible, consulted, and that some measure should be adopted which shall promote the legitimate objects the surgeons have in view, and, at the same time, accord with the general feelings of mankind. My noble and learned friend has adverted to declarations made before death by persons respecting the examination or dissection of their bodies. I myself have made a provision of that nature. I have directed that, after death, my body shall be opened and examined, for I have some reason to think that there is a peculiarity in my conformation, the knowledge of which may possibly serve the interests of science. For more than forty years I was afflicted with a complaint of which I have lately gotten rid, and I have, therefore, directed that my body be submitted to examination—not to gratify an impertinent or idle curiosity, but to such scientific examination as may be required for explaining so remarkable a circumstance as that to which I have just adverted. In framing a measure such as that which the present condition of society and of science requires, no man can more earnestly desire than I do that the delicacy of family feeling should not be outraged; but it is competent for individuals to take measures on the subject. I have made the provisions of which I speak, and I wish others may seriously consider the propriety of acting in a similar manner, in the full persuasion that were such a practice frequent, the necessity of adopting other means to procure anatomical subjects would be nearly obviated. As a religious man, I look with confidence to that immortality, in which I may possibly remember, not without satisfaction, that my mortal remains here have been made useful to those of my fellow-creatures who may have been left still longer in this world; and, in quitting this state of existence, it may be some consolation to me to feel that, even after death, my bodily frame may advance that which I always desired during my life—the good of my fellow men. I beg leave now to present to your Lordships a petition, to the same effect as the one I have already presented, from the teachers and students of the School of Anatomy in Webb-street, Southwark; and I cannot sit down without expressing my full conviction, that if some arrangements be not speedily made, you will drive the study of anatomy altogether from this country, and compel our medical men to resort to foreign countries for that information which they ought to be able to obtain at home.

Petitions to lie on the Table.