Not many of you probably think about what happens when something is removed from your body during a GP visit or a hospital trip.
Anything from a small skin sample to a mastectomy, if you live in the UK, these will make their way to your local histology lab. Whilst here, they will be examined, dissected and processed in chemicals so they can be sliced thinly and mounted onto microscope slides.
There are a number of regulations that scientists working in histology must work alongside, with arguably the most important being the Human Tissue Authority.
The Human Tissue Authority ensures that all human tissue is used safely and ethically – with proper consent from either the patient or a deceased patient’s family (in the case of post mortem tissue). This regulatory body basically makes sure that anything removed from you or your loved ones is treated with respect and disposed of correctly.
All of this is now common day practice in the UK throughout all NHS labs, but this hasn’t always been the case.
During the 19th Century in Edinburgh there was growing interest in the human body. This led to an increase in anatomy teaching with Dr Robert Knox being an increasingly popular figure as he led many anatomy lessons in public.
Scottish law at the time required that only individuals who had died in prison, from suicide or in orphanages would be used during autopsy.
These ‘lessons’ led to a demand in corpses for dissections and bodies were worth a substantial sum of money. This resulted in an increase in ‘body snatching’ – digging into graves and taking decomposing corpses, with the price ranging from approximately £8-10. The disruption of graves naturally led to families increasing vigilance and guard around their deceased loved ones, increasing the shortage of corpses further, until Burke and Hare.
In 1828, there were multiple killings committed over a period of around a year.
Tim Marshall (1995) – “Burke and Hare took grave-robbing to it’s logical conclusion: instead of digging up the dead, they accepted lucrative incentives to destroy the living”.
William Burke and William Hare met in 1827 and moved into a lodging house. When a lodger in the house died, they decided to sell the body to Dr Knox. Seeing how much money they could make from the exchange, they began to murder ill or drunk lodgers, mainly by suffocation and took their bodies to Knox.
In total, 16 people were murdered by Burke and Hare.
Their reign of terror eventually ended on the 31st October 1828, when fellow lodgers found a body after being suspicious about not being allowed in certain rooms and alerted the police.
Burke was hanged, Hare managed to get off, alongside their wives. Interestingly during the trial, Dr Knox did not face any charges. Although he never questioned where the bodies came from, most were still warm when delivered to him, so surely he would have had his suspicions…
However, in the inquiry, he stated that he believed that the men had watched over poor houses and had claimed bodies before anybody else had the chance. I’m not sure I believe him, but I will leave that up to yourselves to decide!
The murders did however raise public awareness of the need for some sort of regulations around bodies being used for medical research and eventually led to the introduction of the first Anatomy Act in 1832, and by extension, the Human Tissue Authority. This prevents the unlawful disinterment of human bodies and really, just upholds the respect that individuals should be granted after death. Since then, bodies are only used for teaching purposes if the individual has donated their body for medical science, or if someone is observing a post mortem ordered by a Coroner.
Histology will always hold a special place in my heart and this is a particular bit of legislation that I’ve recently been learning about for a bioethics module and it’s just really interested me – which I can’t decide is good or a little morbid!
If you’re interested, William Burke’s skeleton is on display at the Anatomical Museum of Edinburgh Medical School. Go check it out (see link HERE)!
I hope you’ve enjoyed this little historical segment and as always, let me know your thoughts in the comments below.
Until next time,