Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Anatomy Act

Death, Dissection and the Destitute
by Ruth Richardson, Penguin Books, 1988, 426 pp., appendices, notes, bibliography, index.

In 1518, the College of Physicians was founded to improve the state of medical knowledge in England, but improvements were hampered by one very simple fact: the lack of human bodies for dissection.  In 1540, the companies of Barbers and Surgeons were united by Royal Charter and Henry VIII granted them the rights to the bodies of four hanged felons per year.  Charles II increased that number to six.  But these dissections were ostensibly public affairs and were part of the sentence inflicted upon the criminals.  Thus, from the start, dissection was seen in the public eye as a punishment for criminals and as a defilement of the corpse, not as a means of gaining medical knowledge.

This shortfall in supply was made up by one very simple solution, robbing graves.  This was done either by disinterring freshly buried corpses, or by waylaying the bodies before they were buried.  Work houses, charity hospitals and asylums were favorite sources as their occupants were poor, indigent or had no relatives to claim their bodies.  The supplying of anatomists and surgeons with bodies sometimes involved the collusion of grave diggers, sextons, administrators at the facilities mentioned, undertakers and even clergy.

The men who plied this trade were called resurrectionists.  Grave robbing was not a crime, per se, since the body was not considered property.  While a man could be hung for poaching, he would not be hung for stealing a dead body, unless he also stole the personal effects of the corpse.  It was a lucrative business and it is perhaps not entirely surprising that at some point some one would see the advantage of using the anatomists as a means of disposing of murder victims.  The most celebrated case was that of Burke and Hare in Edinburgh.

Mrs. Hare was the owner of a cheap lodging house in which an elderly man died while still owing her money.  To pay off this debt, Burke and Hare sold him to an anatomist for £7.10s.  When another lodger fell very ill, Burke and Hare eased him on his way and sold his body for £10.  In all they killed 16 people before they were discovered, and introduced a new verb into the English vocabulary: to burke.  Burke was hung and dissected on 28 January 1829, Hare turned King’s evidence and was spared, and the anatomist to whom they sold the bodies, Knox, was never charged.

The first Anatomy Bill (Bill for preventing the Unlawful Disinterment of Human Bodies, and for Regulating Schools of Anatomy) was submitted to Parliament by Henry Warburton on 12 March 1829.  It did not pass, partly because of its length, the fact that it used the word dissection and because it obviously singled out the poor as the primary source of bodies.  In 1831 Bishop and Williams, the London Burkers, were discovered.  They had been supplying bodies to schools for some time when they decided to help matters along.  They confessed to killing three people before their trial, although on the eve of their execution on 5 December 1831, Williams supposedly confessed that the number was closer to sixty.

Warburton introduced his second Anatomy Bill ten days after their execution.  This one was called simply A Bill for Regulating Schools of Anatomy, and the word dissection had been replaced with the phrase anatomical examination.  It was shorter than his previous bill and though it still targeted the poor, it did not do so directly.  It merely said that unless you or your executor or other lawful party expressly forbid it, your body was liable to undergo anatomical examination.  It was eventually passed, but it did little to increase the supply of legitimate bodies.  For the most part it simply cut out the middle man of the resurrectionist.

In this book, Ruth Richardson has given us a detailed social and political history of the events leading up to and surrounding the Anatomy Act using numerous primary sources including government documents, official reports, pamphlets and newspapers.  She links it with a general change in attitudes towards the poor, culminating in the New Poor Laws, and stigmatizing poverty by connecting their deaths with a fate that had previously been reserved for criminals.  She claims that it also lead to a societal fear among the poor of the pauper’s funeral, helping to spur the growth of burial clubs and friendly societies.  In addition, the connection of work houses as suppliers of anatomists lead to a general mistrust of these institutions.  Other factors that are mentioned are the corruption and nepotism of the Royal College of Surgeons, the establishment of the Lancet by Thomas Wakley as a means of promulgating medical knowledge and as a vehicle for medical reform and the role of the Benthamites in the passing of the Anatomy Act itself.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

David Noble - America by Design

A neo-Mumfordian, Noble enlists science in the conspiracy of Big Money in taking over the world and turning us all into parts of their machine, whose sole motives are profit and power.

C. Hamlin & P. Shepard - Deep Disagreement in U.S. Agriculture

As we watch policy debates, and technology debates, and all the debates on environmental issues, the question arises: how can we ever hope to resolve all of these differences?  How can we ever find a solution that will satisfy all the parties concerned?  This book presents a method for doing just that.

By creating a neutral ground, and translating between the various interest groups in a disagreement, academics can enable a rational dialogue between the parties concerned that might actually lead to mutual understanding and maybe even a solution.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Bruno Latour, Aramis

When a technology fails, how do we explain what happened?  How do we understand what happened?  In Aramis Latour uncovers the multiple narratives that underlie failure, and perhaps, by implication, success.

Among the themes that he addresses are the sexuality of technology.  Latour wants to refute the idea that the theory of evolution can be applied to scientific progress, which assumes that later technology is an improvement over earlier technology and that it better meets/serves the needs of “the environment” (i.e., humanity).

He also advocates heterogeneous engineering in which major social questions concerning the spirit of the age or the century and “properly” technological questions are blended into a single discourse.  This leads to the notion of translation, in which a global problem is transformed into a local problem through a chain of intermediaries that are not “logical” in the formal sense.

In addition, in order for a project to succeed, an engineer has to stimulate interest and convince the public.  They must market innovation and technology.  All of which leads to the question: is technological reality rational?  Consumers, like technology, are invented, displaced, and translated through chains of interest.

He recommends two kinds of charts to help understand technology: sociograms, which chart human interests and translations; and technograms, which chart nonhuman interests and translations.  Both people and technology (human and nonhuman actors) are alike in that just as you have to compromise when dealing with a number of people, so you have to compromise when integrating any new technology.

But one of the problems of an innovative project is that the number of actors that needs to be taken into account are not known from the beginning.  If you don’t have enough actors, the project loses reality, if you have too many actors, the project becomes over-complicated and will probably fail.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Jerry Mander, In the Absence of the Sacred (1991)

Jerry Mander is asking “what happened to the future?” and challenging the idea that advances in technology equates to progress and that this is a good thing.

He defines a minimally successful society as one that:
    1) keeps its population healthy, peaceful and contented;
    2) has sufficient food, shelter, and a sense of participation in a shared community experience;
    3) permits and encourages access to the collective wisdom and knowledge of the society and whose members have a spiritually and emotionally satisfying existence.

Mander wants to encourage awareness, care and respect for the earth’s life support system.

But while technology has given us an improved standard of living, with greater speed, greater choice, greater leisure, greater luxury (bigger, better, faster, more), we haven’t eliminated poverty or crime and we don’t even have universal education.  So, while our society may be a material success, it doesn’t work.  And, even worse, the technological advances that have made this all possible have led to environmental degradation, but no one (except Mander?) seems to be questioning the price of technology.

In response, Mander wants to challenge what he calls the Pro-Technology Paradigm that is characterized by:
    1) dominance of best-case scenarios
    2) the pervasiveness and invisibility of technology
    3) the limitations of the personal view - we don’t see the wider effects of our tools, only how they help us
    4) the inherent appeal of the machine - its flash and promise
    5) the assumption that technology is neutral and the idea of a scientific priesthood - nuclear power leads to autocratic systems, while solar energy leads to democratic systems (centralized power vs. distributed power)