Organ and Tissue Donation: An Evidence Base for Practice

By Magi Sque; Sheila Payne | Go to book overview

1 Human dissection and organ
transplantation in historical
context

Ruth Richardson


Introduction1

When a nurse or a doctor wishes to examine a wound, they take away the dressings to see how things look beneath. Historians unpack the present by looking behind it, to try to discern roots and causes. This chapter looks at transplantation in a long historical context (since the sixteenth century) which includes the funerary culture of the British Isles, the judicial use of dissection as a punishment, bodysnatching, transplantation itself, and the history of bodily donation, in an attempt to help explain modern phenomena which might otherwise seem perplexing, such as organ shortage. The geographical focus is the UK, but aspects of the story have echoes elsewhere, particularly in Europe, and in countries with a history of British colonial involvement, including Australia and North America.

Although transplantation as a successful medical therapy is comparatively recent in its development, historical parallels do exist, both for the actual transplantation of body parts and the wariness with which donation is often regarded (Youngner et al. 1996). In the eighteenth century bodysnatching provided a source of body parts for anatomists and early transplantation efforts. Public resistance to bodysnatching also bears similarities to modern opposition to un-consented organ removal and retention (Redfern 2001). The popular revulsion toward bodysnatching, and the importance of the 1832 Anatomy Act, which sought to provide adequate supplies of bodies for the anatomists, cannot be fully understood without examining the traditional attitudes that existed toward death and the corpse. This chapter will therefore explore traditional eighteenth-century death culture; attempts by government to provide an adequate supply of corpses for anatomists; and the outrage provoked by bodysnatching when these provisions proved inadequate. The short-lived vogue for tooth transplantation in the last quarter of the eighteenth century will be briefly examined along with the reasons for its failure, and ethical and medical critiques of the day. The chapter then

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