Top 10 Astonishing Things You Didn’t Know About Human Dissection


Having just published a book called Dissection on Display, I feel compelled to share with you a series of astounding facts I’ve picked up about anatomizing the human body.  You are probably aware that “Gray’s Anatomy” is a textbook that was painstakingly compiled by British anatomist Henry Gray, long before it was a popular television drama.  You may know about the history of medical dissection (as opposed to forensic autopsy), and its dependence on execution, destitution, and exhumation for corpses on which to practice and experiment.  You may even be familiar with the 200-year-old preserved dissections of anatomists Honoré Fragonard of France and Frederik Ruysch of the Netherlands.  But I hope to surprise you with some of the lesser-known facts about the bloody history of exploring our internal workings:

10.  Human Dissections Were Often Public Events

At specially-built anatomy theaters on designated days during the Renaissance, hundreds of interested (and often rowdy) laypeople would join government officials, university professors and students, and visitors to watch a corpse being disassembled.  The ticketed crowd would sit on benches, or press against the railings, in concentric circles around a central table.  At a lectern, one man would recite from an anatomy textbook, another would point to the corresponding structure revealed in the body, and a third would do the dirty work with the knife.

9.  It Was Part Of Capital Punishment

Yes, public dissection was tacked onto the death sentence as additional punishment for particularly vile crimes in the 19th century.  For instance, when dissecting the human body supported the illegal practice of bodysnatching, a Scotsman named William Burke and his partner-in-crime, William Hare, decided to skip a step, and carried out at least 16 murders for the purpose of selling their victims’ cadavers.  The men were arrested and tried.  Hare testified against Burke to avoid prosecution, and Burke was sentenced to be hanged, and publicly dissected, for “his” crimes.  A crowd of at least 20,000 turned out for the 1829 execution, thousands of whom filed past the nude body after it had been dismantled at the Edinburgh Medical College.  Burke’s dissector was the rival of the anatomist, to whom he sold the bodies of his victims, and many found his fate fitting.

8.  Unwrapping Egyptian Mummies Was An Engaging Social Amusement

Gentlemen who had acquired mummies would invite their friends to private “unrollings”, held in their homes.  Lecturers, including Thomas “Mummy” Pettigrew, filled public auditoriums with crowds who would listen intently about the exotic ancient culture, and then wrinkle their noses, as the dust of a 4,000-year-old mummy’s wrappings filled the air.  Removing them often required the use of hammers and chisels but, sometimes, the labor was rewarded with the discovery of amulets, gilding, or artificial eyes.  The audience was treated to a good look at the dehydrated corpse, when it was finally revealed, and sometimes with swatches of the linen remnants as souvenirs.

7.  Medical Students Posed With Cadavers As A Rite Of Passage

Dissection photos are collectors’ items, now that cameras and camera phones are no longer allowed in Gross Anatomy 101, but once featured the students in their smocks, the professors with their pipes, and the porters with their buckets.  The crowd squeezed in around the focal point, the body of a corpse – and not always in a supine position.  In addition to being given clever names, cadavers were the butts of visual gaffes in which they switched places with students and stood propped up next to the dissecting table, appearing to wield the scalpel themselves.

6.  Public Dissections Were Performed As Recently As Ten Years Ago

After a gap of one hundred years, during which anatomists withdrew behind the closed doors of medical schools, German anatomist Gunther von Hagens staged what he billed as a “public autopsy” in London in 2002.  Known for his provocative BodyWorlds exhibitions of creatively dissected donor bodies preserved by his method of plastination, von Hagens stirred controversy by demonstrating anatomy to the uninitiated.  He carried out the procedure before a crowd of two hundred, and it was broadcast on British television later that night.  His subject was the embalmed body of a 72-year-old man with a history of smoking and drinking, whose organs were passed around the crowd in trays as they were removed.

5.  The Identity Of The Dissected In A Famous Painting

In what is perhaps the most well-known dissection scene, physician and surgeon Dr. Nicolaes Tulp is performing his second public dissection on January 31, 1632.  He is depicted explaining the musculature of the arm to identified fellow members of the Surgeons’ Guild – some of whom paid to be included, and were not actually present at the dissection.  Dutch artist Rembrandt van Rijn depicted this scene in his famous painting, “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp,” and we now know who exactly was the subject being cut open. The subject of the demonstration is hanged robber Adriaan Adriaanszoon, better known locally “Aris Kindt” (“Aris the Kid”), whose arms would actually have been the last parts of his body to be dissected.

4.  William Harvey Dissected His Family

English anatomist William Harvey, best known for discovering the circulation of the blood, dissected the bodies of his father, his sister, and his cousin’s husband.   Although these anatomical dissections were conducted privately, Harvey mentioned them in his lectures to students, noting the huge size of the colon he removed from his father’s abdomen and the heavy weight of his sister’s spleen.  The activities of Harvey and his peers did not escape the notice of the public, and led to the persistent stereotype that anatomists are troubled, emotionless ghouls.

3.  Herophilus Might Have Dissected People Alive

Greek physician Herophilus, considered to be the father of human anatomy, was accused of conducting live dissections of some 600 prisoners.  These vivisections were carried out at a medical school in Alexandria, Egypt, where his public dissections drew observers from all over the world.  Many at the time criticized his method, in spite of the gains in knowledge from dissecting living, breathing bodies.  Although the writings of Herophilus were lost when the library at Alexandria burned in 272 AD, his findings continued to be disseminated by Roman physician Galen, in the 2nd century.

2.  Sex Organs Were On Public Display For Almost 200 Years

Saartje Baartman, the so-called “Hottentot Venus” of South Africa, was exhibited to a paying public eager to get a look at her exaggerated buttocks.  She was too modest to display her equally-legendary elongated labia, but was at the mercy of medical men who arranged for custody of her corpse within twenty-four hours of her death in 1815.  Baartman was anatomized and plaster cast.  French naturalist Georges Cuvier preserved her brain and external genitals in fluid, and boiled her bones to assemble her skeleton.  Petitions to repatriate her remains were ignored for decades until the case was brought to light by Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, in his 1987 book The Flamingo’s Smile.  Eight years after a formal request by South African president Nelson Mandela in 1994, Baartman’s body parts were ceremoniously buried in the valley where she was born, and she is now regarded as a national hero.

1.  “Anthropodermic” Books, Bound By Human Skin, Are Available At Your Local Library

The skin of medical patients and executed prisoners has in the past been tanned and used to bind books, and plenty of them are still preserved in libraries, museums, and private collections.  As an example, Englishman William Corder was convicted of shooting, killing, and disposing of the body of his lover in 1828.  He was publicly hanged three days later, and the crowd was allowed to file past his opened body, after which a death mask was made.  A thorough dissection was conducted at the hospital over the next two days, and his head was phrenologically examined.  The anatomist Dr. George Creed then removed skin from Corder’s back and used it to bind an account of the crime and trialThe Mysterious Murder of Maria Marten by James Curtis – which, to this day, is on display at Moyse’s Hall Museum in Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk, England.

Christine Quigley can be found at

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  1. You are nothing but a bunch of uneducated, ignorant and stupid people. Of all people to piss off ? Hillborough was NOT a riot. You have unleashed a massive fuck up….WE WILL NOT BE SILENCED….JFT96

    • No, I haven’t noticed a drop in advertising but I don’t want anyone to be offended especially over a tragedy such as this. The author of the list chose not to rewrite so I have removed it from the site. Now it is the only top 9 list on the site.

    • Paul D. Murray on

      Several companies were contacted today and immediately moved to ensure their ads never appear on your page again. a massive error on your part. An apology is the least you owe the families of those who lost their lives that day