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Haunt of the Resurrection Men

A forgotten graveyard, the dawn of modern medicine, and the hard life in 19th-century London

Monday, April 08, 2013

Paul Gustave Dore engraving

 

Working amid the confusion of the East India Docks in London in the early 1800s was perilous trade. In the holds of rolling ships, men could be crushed by falling barrels and chests. On deck, grappling hooks swung wildly, and carelessly loaded containers burst, sometimes showering longshoremen with toxic substances such as iodine, phosphorous, asbestos, and lead. Losing one’s footing was often a death sentence—crushed between ship and dock or drowned in the filthy Thames.

 

There was no shortage of men willing to take these risks. The Industrial Revolution in Britain was booming and immigrants flooded in from Ireland and the continent in search of work. Many ended up on the docks or in the factories of London’s East End. Wages were low and homes scarce—four of every five families lived in filthy single rooms. Open sewers ran down the streets and the air was clogged with soot.

 

Industrialization took its toll on the community’s health. Their only bulwark against frequent disease outbreaks and horrific injuries was the London Hospital. But among the very sick or seriously hurt, even admission to the hospital did little to improve chances of survival. Infection was rife on the wards and surgery was a brutal business. The standard treatment for a broken bone was amputation, and there were no anesthetics or antiseptics.

 

In a way, though, for such a bustling, desperate neighborhood, death often represented opportunity. Medical science was undergoing a revolution of its own, and the corpses of the recently deceased were in high demand by surgeons and medical students. Though it was illegal, there was a roaring trade in dead bodies.

 

Until now, little was known about exactly what nineteenth-century medical professionals did with those cadavers, or how far they were prepared to bend the rules to get them. The recent discovery of a long-forgotten cemetery on the grounds of the London Hospital is illuminating some of these practices and, while some of the details are not for the squeamish, they have much to tell us about the foundation upon which modern medicine is built.