Mar 22nd 2023

“NO PEACEFUL BURIAL PLACE”: Encountering Body-Snatching and Teaching Anatomy from a Lost Letter of Tobias Smollett, M.D., to Dr. William Hunter

The talk will focus on interpreting a newly discovered letter from the writer Tobias Smollett (1721-1771) to his fellow Scot, the celebrated anatomist Dr. William Hunter (1718-1783). This opaque letter, long deemed lost but now preserved in the Wellcome Medical Museum in London, has been claimed as evidence of the author’s involvement, directly or by proxy, in the illicit trade of body snatching. As one who had trained as a surgeon, Smollett was well aware of the practice of body snatching, whereby anatomists employed ruffian gangs to bargain with the hangman for the unclaimed bodies of miscreants strung up on the gallows, or unlawfully to dig up corpses of the freshly buried in the dead of night. The talk will move from examining the letter to a broader discussion of the advent of the teaching of practical anatomy in the mid eighteenth century. It will be illustrated with images, many of them satirical, delineating popular attitudes to the practice.


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