HL Deb 19 July 1832 vol 14 cc533-6
Lord Minto

moved the third reading of the Bill for regulating Schools of Anatomy.

Lord Wynford

opposed the Motion. The Bill was altogether so objectionable that he had despaired from the beginning of its being amended so as to render it fit for passing into a law. He had been ready to propose a plan which would be free from objection, and which he understood from a high medical authority would completely answer the purpose. Under the present Bill, servants might sell the bodies of their masters, landlords the bodies of their lodgers, and people in the poor-houses and work-houses might dispose of the bodies of persons dying there as they pleased. He would move as an amendment, that the Bill be read a third time this day six months.

Lord Teynham

agreed with the learned Lord, and was confident that the feelings of the people were more averse from the present Bill than from any parliamentary measure of late years. The inevitable result would be to demoralize and brutalise the people, and to convert every workhouse-keeper into a systematic trafficker in dead bodies. Neither would it answer its end as a means towards facilitating the study of anatomy.

The Earl of Minto

said, that two facts which noble Lords could not deny, went to demonstrate the weakness of their objections—namely, the fact that the demands of medical science in this country, owing to the legislative prohibitions against providing for that demand, raised the price of the dead body so high, that the price became a desperate temptation to murder and next, the fact that the principle of the Bill had been tried on the Continent and in America, and had been found eminently successful in putting an end to all illegal traffic in human subjects, while the science of anatomy was carefully studied. The question simply resolved itself into this:—was anatomy—that is, the dissection of the dead body—essential to the prosecution of medical science? If it was, then the question was, how dissection could be most facilitated without injury to the feelings of the people? And the answer which experience furnished was, to hand over the bodies of unclaimed persons—that is, of persons dying in hospitals and workhouses, without kindred or friends—to medical gentlemen responsible for the manner in which they should perform their duties. By the law as it stood, a surgeon was punishable for an unskilful exercise of his art; and yet the same law punished him if he attempted to acquire the means of becoming skilful,—that is, punished him for dissecting a dead body. Again, owing to this state of the law, the price of the dead body became so high, that atrocious murders were had recourse to, in order to grasp this enormous booty; the Bill would remove the motive to the crime by doing away with the temptation. But then it was said that it would exclusively apply to the poor. In answer, he would ask, whom would the general improvement of medical men most benefit? Was it not the poor, who could not command, like the rich, the services of the more accomplished physician? Again, whose graves were most exposed to the ravages of the resurrection men Certainly the graves of the poor? And was it not proved in evidence before the Commons' committee, that so frequent was the practice of stealing the bodies of the poor, that one policeman alone detected 100 such robberies? Then, the highest and most humane members of the most humane and en- lightened of professions—that of medicine—approved of the Bill.

The Earl of Harewood

must oppose the Bill on the ground that it legalised the giving up the dead bodies of the poor for dissection—that this was disguised under the term examination—and that the burial service was most indecently slurred over. He had no objection to the supplying of bodies for the great anatomical schools; but by this Bill private individuals might dissect as many as they pleased. It was at a great anatomical school that the late atrocious murders had been detected. If the body of the Italian boy had been taken to a private dissecting room, it was not likely that such a discovery would have taken place. The Bill involved a principle which he detested, and that was the demoralizing the people.

The House divided on the question, that the Bill be now read a third time—Contents 29; Not Contents 9—Majority 20.

The Lord Chancellor

proposed several verbal amendments—agreed to.

Lord Wynford

wished to omit that part of the Bill by which it was provided that persons convicted of murder should not be dissected. He contended that it was well known that the fear of dissection operated powerfully to deter from the commission of sanguinary crimes.

Earl Grey

said, he should be sorry to do away with any portion of the effective punishment of murder, without providing an adequate substitute for what was proposed to be repealed. Granting that the dread of dissection might operate advantageously on the minds of individuals meditating great crimes, unfortunately it was also true that the circumstance of making dissection a part of the punishment of murder, tended to perpetuate and increase the prejudices against anatomical examinations generally. The object of this bill was to promote the interests of science, and it was thought that it would be advantageous (with that view) to do away with the dissection of murderers. At the same time, in order to distinguish murder from other crimes, and for the purpose of avoiding the possibility of lessening the moral horror of the offence, he had no objection to propose a clause enacting that murderers should be buried at the foot of the gallows and without Christian rites.

Lord Kenyon

was fully persuaded that there existed great horror at the idea of being exposed and subjected to dissection, and that the abolition of dissection, in cases of murder, would not in the slightest degree diminish that horror.

Lord Holland

said, if that feeling were now general, he must be permitted to observe, that the world must formerly have been much more republican than at present, since formerly the universal practice was, to subject the bodies of all Sovereign Princes to dissection. [Lord Kenyon.—They were always embalmed.] Actually dissected. He remembered reading a very accurate and minute account of the dissection of Louis XVIII.

Earl Grey

moved a clause to the effect that the bodies of all prisoners convicted of murder should either be hung in chains, or buried under the gallows on which they had been executed, or within the precincts of the prison in which such prisoner had been confined, according to the discretion of the court before whom the prisoner might be tried, and that such addition be stated at the time of pronouncing sentence.

Clause agreed to, and bill read a third time and passed.