Front Page Titles (by Subject) 17.: RESURRECTION-MEN MORNING CHRONICLE, 1 SEPT. 1823, P. 2 - The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXII - Newspaper Writings December 1822 - July 1831 Part I
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17.: RESURRECTION-MEN MORNING CHRONICLE, 1 SEPT. 1823, P. 2 - John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXII - Newspaper Writings December 1822 - July 1831 Part I 
The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXII - Newspaper Writings December 1822 - July 1831 Part I, ed. Ann P. Robson and John M. Robson, Introduction by Ann P. Robson and John M. Robson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986).
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This letter was prompted by “Disturbers of the Dead,” Morning Chronicle, 25 Aug., 1823, p. 4, which reported the trial and sentence of Cornelius Bryant and William Millard for opening a grave in the burial ground of the London Hospital. Those who, by disinterment or other means, procured corpses for sale to schools of anatomy, were known as “resurrection-men.” Dissection of non-criminal corpses was an offence under common and ecclesiastical law; under 32 Henry VIII, c. 42 (1540), Sect. 2, four executed felons could be dissected each year; under 25 George II, c. 37 (1752), all executed murderers were to be “dissected and anatomized.” Mill may have known that Jeremy Bentham had made provision in his will that his body be used for medical purposes, as Mill recommends in the letter. The letter, headed as title, subheaded “To the Editor of the Morning Chronicle,” is described in Mill’s bibliography as “A letter on the punishment of body-stealers, in the Chronicle of 1st September 1823, signed a Friend to Science”
(MacMinn, p. 3).
In your Paper of Monday last, I observed one among a great number of recent cases, where the description of persons called resurrection-men had been sacrificed to popular prejudice.
If it be admitted, and I do not see how it can be called in question, that a knowledge of medicine and surgery cannot be acquired without an acquaintance with the phenomena which the human organs present, both in health and in disease; if it be allowed, that, in order to become acquainted with these phenomena, it is necessary to have ocular demonstration of them, and that dissection is the only mode in which ocular demonstration can be had; it is obvious that every thing which tends to prevent subjects from being obtained in sufficient quantity for the purposes of anatomy, must tend materially to diminish the facilities of acquiring medical and surgical knowledge, and to throw back those sciences into their pristine barbarism.
If bodies had never been dissected, sentimentalists could not have appealed to our hearts in behalf of the sanctity of the tomb, for whether we have or have not such an organ, would probably to this day have remained a problem.
We should have been equally ignorant that we have a brain, lungs, a stomach, nerves, a venous and arterial system, &c. At all events, the structure and position of those organs must have remained for ever unknown to us. The internal processes of animal life—respiration, digestion, the circulation of the blood, all the various secretions, must have continued among the arcana of nature, and all internal diseases must, from want of the requisite knowledge, have been incurable. A man feels, for instance, an acute pain, and shows symptoms of general ill health, from an obstruction in his liver; how can the surgeon, who has never seen a dissection, discover where the remedy is to be applied? The utmost which he could infer would be that the source of evil is somewhere on the right side; and even of this he could not be assured, for the seat of a disease is frequently at a considerable distance from the place of its external manifestation. He might endeavour to cure a liver complaint by a remedy calculated to act on the urinary glands; or to remove the rheumatism by means of an emetic.
If dissection had never taken place, the art of medicine could scarcely have existed. And if it were now to cease, the evil would not be confined to preventing it from ever improving. If, indeed, the present race of practitioners were immortal, this might be the utmost limit of the evil. But there is another generation rising up, who must receive equal instruction with their predecessors, if it is expected that they shall be equally skilful. If dissection were to cease, the death of the latest survivor among the practitioners now living, would be the date of the extinction of medical skill in the world. Instead of ascertaining by actual examination the structure and positions of the organs, physicians would be reduced to guess at them from the imperfect accounts left to them by their predecessors, and the grossest errors would continually be committed.
That bodies should be dissected, is, therefore, absolutely necessary; and the only question is in what way the interests of science and the feelings of individuals may best be conciliated? For any one to attempt confining dissectors to the dead bodies of criminals, displays a degree of ignorance on the subject, which renders it presumption in a person so ill qualified to give an opinion at all on it. Every Middlesex and Old Bailey Sessions produce perhaps two, perhaps three, executions. Is it expected that these shall supply bodies for all the dissections which are necessary to make the rising generation of medical students acquainted with the structure of the human body?
Subjects must, therefore, be provided, and if so, that way is the best which is least offensive to the relatives of the deceased. It implies, indeed, considerable weakness of mind to transfer the associations of pain, which are connected with wounding a living body, to the cold and insensible organs of the dead; as if to be dissected were more shocking than to be eaten by worms! If an attempt were made to dissect a living human creature, there would then be some cause for raising an outcry. It could scarcely then be louder or more widely propagated than it is. But since the feeling exists, the best mode of obtaining subjects is undoubtedly through the resurrection-men. There is nothing here to hurt the feelings of any one. No one knows that the body of his friend or relative has been taken. He cannot acquire this disagreeable piece of information unless he takes considerable trouble for that purpose. Yet these men, who pursue an occupation so useful to the interests of science, and which can give pain to no one unless by his own fault, are condemned to that place of torments incalculable, the tread mill!
What they would not be were it not for the popular prejudice, that prejudice itself compels them to become. A man who will brave such a mass of odium, a man who will expose himself to be stoned to death by the rabble, cannot have much character to lose. Subjects must be had, and as long as there is a demand for medical-surgical knowledge, they will be had, no matter at what cost. Body-stealing cannot, therefore, be prevented, but the price of subjects may be raised, and while the expence of a medical education is enhanced, temptation is held out to persons in distress to expose themselves to such a degree of odium, as cannot be increased by the most vicious conduct on their part, and which by a natural consequence removes all the inducement to a moral and virtuous life. Hence, if the resurrection-men are for the most part low and vicious characters, it is the absurd prejudice, and that alone, which ought to be blamed.
To conclude, I earnestly recommend, as the only effectual mode of destroying the prejudice, that such as are superior to it adopt the practice of leaving their own bodies to the surgeons. If men known to the world for their exalted qualities would do this the prejudice might in time be removed. Such provisions by will have occasionally been made, but from their rarity they are still considered as eccentricities. When they become more common they may perhaps be recognised as proceeding from no other eccentricity than that which is implied in being exempt from, and in wishing to annihilate one of the most vulgar of all prejudices.
A Friend to Science