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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Library ♥ Archives: Explore Archives

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As well as taking centre stage during November for our Library Loves Archives promotion, this month the St George’s Archives will be taking part in a campaign to encourage everyone to explore archives. Explore Archives runs from 19th-27th November and last year over 300 archives from across the UK and Ireland took part.

This is the first time St George’s will be taking part in the archives campaign, which aims to show the potential of archives to excite and bring people together, and tell amazing stories.

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Last month we introduced you to the St George’s Archive Project, and now we are holding an archives handling session inviting staff and students to get hands on with history with a selection of treasures from our archives.

The Explore Archives handling session will be held on Monday 21st November from 12.30pm-1.30pm and staff and students are invited to attend to see what is held in our archives and hear what stories they can tell us about the history of St George’s.

Booking is required and places are limited, so please contact archives@sgul.ac.uk to reserve your place. We’ll also have exclusive postcards featuring some of our archive treasures for attendees to take home.

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During Explore Archives week we will be tweeting throughout with interesting facts and items from our historical collections. Follow @SGULlibrary and the hashtags #stgeorgesarchives and #explorearchives

Find out more about Explore Archives (http://www.exploreyourarchive.org/)

View a timeline of the history of St George’s, University of London

Introducing the St George’s Archive Project

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We’re pleased to introduce to you the St George’s Archive Project, which aims to preserve our archives and make them accessible for research.

St George’s has a long and rich history, dating back to the early 18th century. The Hospital was first founded in 1733 and even before the Medical School was formally established at the Hospital in the 19th century, St George’s already had a long history of training pupils. The pupil registers held in the archives date back to 1756, and John Hunter, one of our most well-known alumnus, is the first name listed on his entry to the Hospital as House Surgeon.

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Entry for John Hunter in the St George’s Hospital Pupil Register 1756-1837

What are Archives?

Archives are a collection of records or objects created or gathered by a person or institution and selected for long-term preservation as evidence of their activities. Our archives tell us about our history, preserving the past and allowing others to discover it.

As well as papers, books and photographs, our collections contain over 300 artefacts, consisting mainly of historic surgical instruments.

Why are they important?

Many of our archives are unique, and if lost, are irreplaceable. They represent our documented heritage, telling the story of St George’s.

The collections provide a rich source for research, not only about the history of the Hospital and Medical School, but also the wider transformation in the teaching and practice of medicine and health since the 18th century.

In support of this project, the University’s first professional archivist started earlier this year.

What is an Archivist?

It is the job of the archivist to preserve and widen access to archives and the information contained within them. This might include assisting users and answering enquiries, promoting the collections through exhibitions and talks, and using curatorial skills to select, arrange and catalogue archives.

An archivist does not carry out detailed research themselves, but instead they facilitate access to collections in support of research.

Before joining St George’s, University of London, Archivist Elisabeth previously worked in the archives at the University of the Arts London, the Guardian newspaper and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

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Archivist Elisabeth in the Archive Store

Until now the majority of the collections were inaccessible. Elisabeth is currently listing and repackaging the archives prior to cataloguing. This will allow the collections to be searched more easily, helping interested researchers find the information they need for their research.

Project progress so far has included introducing suitable access arrangements to help to protect the archives for use by current students and future generations.

Looking forward

A lot of the work of the Archive Project so far has taken place behind the scenes but in November 2016 we will be celebrating our archives during Explore Archives week, encouraging everyone to explore archives.

Look out for future blog posts updating you on the progress of the St George’s Archive Project.

We will also be posting interesting things from our archives on Twitter, so be sure to check out hashtag #stgeorgesarchives

Cambridge University Press Journals Digital Archive – now available


We now have access to the Cambridge University Press journals digital archive.
Coverage starts from 1827 to 1997 and includes 93 titles within science, technology and medicine. Some of our popular Cambridge titles include:

  •  Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy – now available from 1975
  •  British Journal of Nutrition – now available from 1947
  •  Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics – now available from 1992
  •  Development and Psychopathology – now available from 1989
  •  Prehospital and Disaster Medicine – now available from 1985
  •  Proceedings of the Nutrition Society – now available from 1944
  •  Psychological Medicine – now available from 1970
  •  Public Health Nutrition – now available from 1998                        

All of the above content is now available via our e-journals A-Z list and Hunter

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For further help with journals please email: journals@sgul.ac.uk