From cradle to grave via the dissection room: the role of foetal and infant bodies in anatomical education from the late 1700s to early 1900s

Jenna M Dittmar, Piers D Mitchell

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

9 Citations (Scopus)

Abstract

The preponderance of men in the narrative of anatomical education during the 1800s has skewed the historical perception of medical cadavers in favour of adult men, and stifled the conversation about the less portrayed individuals, especially children. Although underrepresented in both the historical literature and skeletal remains from archaeological contexts dated to the 1800s, these sources nevertheless illustrate that foetal and infant cadavers were a prized source of knowledge. In the late 1700s and 1800s foetal and infant cadavers were acquired by anatomists following body snatching from graveyards, from the child's death in a charitable hospital, death from infectious disease in large poor families, or following infanticide by desperate unwed mothers. Study of foetal and infant remains from the 1800s in the anatomical collection at the University of Cambridge shows that their bodies were treated differently to adults by anatomists. In contrast to adults it was extremely rare for foetal and infant cadavers to undergo craniotomy, and thoracotomy seems to have been performed through costal cartilages of the chest rather than the ribs themselves. However, many infants and foetuses do show evidence for knife marks on the cranium indicating surgical removal of the scalp by anatomists. These bodies were much more likely to be curated long term in anatomical collections and museums than were adult males who had undergone dissection. They were prized both for demonstrating normal anatomical development, but also congenital abnormalities that led to an early death. The current findings show that the dissection of foetal and infant cadavers was more widespread than previous research on anatomical education suggests. This research details the important role of the youngest members of society in anatomical education during the long 19th century, and how the social identity of individuals in this subgroup affected their acquisition, treatment and disposal by elite medical men of the time.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)713-722
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Anatomy
Volume229
Issue number6
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2016

Keywords

  • Anatomy/education
  • Cadaver
  • Dissection/history
  • Fetus/anatomy & histology
  • History, 17th Century
  • History, 18th Century
  • History, 19th Century
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Medical Illustration/history

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