Body Snatchers and Red Rot: The Post Mortem Records of St George’s Hospital

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Archivist Carly Manson has recently been giving talks about St George’s Archives  (look out for the Halloween special!) and looking more in depth into our collections and how best to preserve them. One collection that deserves a special mention is our post mortem examinations and case books…


Image from St George's Archive
Image from St George’s Archives

In the bowels of the medical school at St George’s, there lies a series of post mortem examinations and case books from St George’s Hospital, spanning the mid-19th and 20th centuries.

Pioneering physician Sir William Osler once described the post mortem records of St George’s Hospital as the “finest collection of its kind”. Osler stressed the importance of the post mortem in medical education and it has played an important role in the history of the medical school, today St George’s, University of London.

Henry Gray signature- Post Mortem book 1855
Henry Gray’s signature- Post Mortem case book 1855

Today the hospital and medical school are located in Tooting, but until the 1970s were situated in central London at Hyde Park. The deaths and diseases recorded within the case books therefore offer an insight into shifts in the population health of central London. They feature detailed autopsy reports written by noted surgeons including Henry Gray, Caesar Hawkins and Timothy Holmes, and later eminent figures such as Claude Frankau and William Duke-Elder.

Today, post mortems are more commonly associated with forensics and criminal investigations. In the 19th century, the purpose of the post mortem was for physicians to support their diagnosis made when the patient was alive, and to identify any other unrecognised factors that contributed to the cause of death. Bodies were also examined in order to identify the internal functions and structures of the body and the relationships between these.

As well as the post mortem examinations undertaken, the case books chart the bodies which went unexamined, many of which were transported to the medical school for the teaching of anatomy. At a time when ‘body snatching’ was still fresh in the public consciousness, the case books reveal issues around consent and the changing way in how we see the body after death.

Dissection was prohibited in England until the 16th century.  At that time, limited rights were given allowing around ten bodies a year for dissection.  In 1752 the Murder Act was passed, allowing medical schools more access to bodies by providing the corpses of executed murderers. This meant there was still a great shortage of bodies for the pursuit of medical knowledge. This shortage resulted in the growth of the illegal body trade and those known as the ‘body snatchers’, or ‘Resurrection Men’, as they were commonly known at the time.

In 1832, the Anatomy Act was passed, allowing the lawful possession of a body for anatomical examination provided that relatives of the deceased did not object.  Until this point, it was extremely difficult for physicians and surgeons to contribute advancements in medical science.  The practice of dissection was still mostly condemned on moral and religious grounds at this time, and protests against the Act continued into the 1840s.  Many protesters believed that the Act still failed to stop the sale of paupers’ bodies for medical research without their consent.

Rosie Bolton, Conservator from the Leather Conservation Centre, recently visited the St George’s Archives and Special Collections to examine the red rot found on the leather covers of the post mortem case books. ‘Red rot’ is a typical deterioration where the leather becomes degraded and turns into thin powder. Rosie inspected the condition of the covers and took PH tests to check the acidity levels of the leather.  It is hoped that the medical school will be awarded funding from the Wellcome Trust to fully conserve these fascinating case books and their histories.

Conservator Rosie Bolton, examining our post mortem case books.

Did you know…

Red rot (or redrot) is a degradation process found in vegetable-tanned leather. Red rot is caused by prolonged storage or exposure to high temperatures, high relative humidity, and environmental pollution.  Red rot commonly appears as a red dust or powder on the surface of the leather.  Unfortunately, the deterioration processes associated with this also affect the fibrous structure of the leather, and if left untreated, leather suffering from red rot can disintegrate completely into a red powder.

For further information relating to the history of St George’s Hospital and the medical school, please contact the Archivist at archives@sgul.ac.uk or go to the following webpage: http://library.sgul.ac.uk/using-the-library/archives

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