Even the bleakest Charles Dickens novel would struggle to do justice to the grimness of some of the Victorian medical practices revealed in a new study by researchers from Cambridge University. Analyzing the skeletal remains of 54 children whose bodies had been dissected by anatomists at the University during the 18th and 19th centuries, researchers have uncovered some disturbing details regarding how these infant specimens were obtained and treated.
According to the paper, which appears in the Journal of Anatomy, child corpses were seen as a “prized source of knowledge” by Georgian and Victorian era anatomists. This is largely because they allowed scientists to study the early stages of human development, as well as congenital abnormalities that led to early deaths. As such, they were highly sought after for both research and education purposes, and often displayed in museums.
However, the availability of children’s bodies was largely dependent on fluctuating socio-cultural factors. For example, after studying historical records relating to the corpses obtained by the University, the researchers learned that during the early 1800s, anatomists largely relied on grave-robbers – or “resurrectionists” – to supply them with their study materials.
But because these unscrupulous individuals tended to sell their “goods” by the inch, they were often reluctant to dig up dead children, instead favoring tall burly men. As such, scientists struggled to get their hands on infant corpses, until the Anatomy Act of 1832 allowed hospitals and workhouses to donate dead bodies to science if unclaimed by relatives.
As cholera and other epidemics swept through Victorian England, hospitals soon boasted an abundance of infant corpses for anatomists to sink their scalpels into, while Oliver Twist-style workhouses also contributed their fair share of extinguished childhoods.
The situation then became even more macabre two years later, when the New Poor Law Amendment Act removed all child support services for single mothers, in an attempt to discourage illegitimate births. As a consequence, many poor women who fell pregnant out of wedlock found themselves in a desperate situation, and often took the heartbreaking decision to murder their newborns and sell them to researchers, using the money to feed the other members of their starving families.
Image: A dissected fetal skull. Jenna Dittmar
Once in the possession of researchers, infant corpses were handled with much greater care than those of adults. For instance, while most fully grown bodies had the tops of their heads sawn off in a procedure called a craniotomy, the study authors found that only one of the 54 child specimens underwent this process. The others had all had the flesh carefully removed from the skull in order to preserve as much of the bone as possible, so that the bodies could be presented in museums.
Keeping child bodies intact also ensured they remained valuable education tools. For example, by injecting a whole body with colored wax, scientists could highlight the entire circulatory and nervous systems. As such, they tended to take extra care when dissecting these specimens. For instance, while anatomists often cracked the ribs of adult bodies when attempting to access and dissect the thorax, they tended to leave these bones untouched in children, instead going in through the cartilage between their ribs.
According to study co-author Jenna Dittmar, "the skulls appear to have been intentionally spared to preserve them for teaching or display. This may explain why so few children with signs of dissection on their bones have been recovered from the burial grounds of hospitals or parish churches, compared with adults."
Only one of the 54 infant and fetal skulls had undergone a craniotomy. Journal of Anatomy