It was a way of saving the full cost of a funeral, but
no-one would want to use it today. In the nineteenth century, a woman who lost
a baby or small child would often sell its body to anatomists for scientific
investigation. She wouldn’t have to pay for a funeral and she would earn some
money on top. But who would want to be a mother in that position?
The small bodies of infants and children were prized by
anatomists not just because they were easier to handle, but because they could
be used for investigations into growth and development. Even though medicine
had been in existence for thousands of years, doctors still knew very little
about the human body. Even when religious and cultural taboos on dissecting
bodies began to fade, the supply of corpses was not enough to meet demand until
the Anatomy Act of 1832.
The act was designed to stop body-snatching, or the theft of
corpses from graveyards, by making it legal for families to donate the bodies of a dead relative to science. It
also allowed hospitals and workhouses to donate unclaimed bodies. Workhouses
were the dreaded institutions that took in people who were unable to support
themselves. They were hated by the poor, because the food was bad, the
conditions were harsh and the staff were often uncaring and cruel. Being taken
to a workhouse was often a death sentence.
And if someone died there after the Anatomy Act, they might
easily end up on a dissecting table. What would the doctors and anatomists have
thought when they cut up a body from the workhouse? It must have been common to
see signs of starvation, neglect and violence, especially in children. But
attitudes were different in those days: death and suffering were common sights,
so people tended to accept them as inevitable. The country was much poorer and
life was very harsh for the poor.
In 1834, it got even harsher. Parliament passed another act
that increased the supply of bodies for dissection. But the new laws weren’t
about medicine: the act was called the New Poor Law Amendment Act. It stopped
official money being given to unmarried mothers and cut off other sources of
income. The act was intended to lower the number of illegitimate births. But it
didn’t. Instead, it raised the number of illegitimate deaths. Faced with an unwanted
pregnancy, desperate women resorted to abortion and infanticide.
Abortion was a serious crime in Victorian times and for
decades after. It often left clear evidence and was dangerous to the mother.
But infanticide – the killing of a baby or small child – was easier to conceal.
Who could prove that a baby had been smothered or poisoned rather than being
stillborn or dying of disease? Babies and children were even deliberately
starved to death, especially when they were unwanted additions to an already
The Poor Law Amendment Act made all these problems worse, so
it vastly increased the number of tiny bodies being sold or donated to
anatomists and medical schools. Medical knowledge advanced, but at a very heavy
price in suffering and unnecessary death. And knowledge of the body didn’t
automatically mean better treatments. In Victorian times, an old saying was
even truer than it is today: “Prevention is better than cure.” A baby or child
that was given enough nourishing food would be better able to fight off an
infection. That was if its mother wanted it to live. If the mother didn’t, what
chance did it have?