Corpses and Copyrights

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For considerable time almost every London church had its own cemetery. Before 1800 there were more than two hundred such graveyards in the capital. St George’s at Hanover Square, Mayfair, was built between 1721 and 1724 to the designs of John James (George Frederick Handel was a regular worshipper here). The church originally sat in open countryside in the middle of its own burying place . Paddington Street Gardens were originally formed as an additional burial ground for St George’s. Burials at St George’s included that of Ann Radcliffe and Laurence Sterne. The latter was born in 1713 in Clonmel, Ireland, into a military family, the second of seven children. Since the age of ten he lived in Yorkshire, away from his parents and by the age of twenty he entered Jesus College, Cambridge. His education prepared him for taking clerical orders, and in 1737 he accepted the assistant curacy of St Ives, Huntingdon. Four years later, he assumed the vicarage of Sutton on the Forest, a village eight miles north of York which remained his home until 1760. This cosmopolitan mind spent most of his adult life serving a rural parish. He lived his life in relative obscurity participating on occasion in local politics – until 1759. That year he offered bookseller and publisher Robert Dodsley a manuscript of what eventually became the first two volumes of Tristram Shandy. The book was an immediate success and Sterne became the literary toast of the day. He died in London on 18 March 1768. He was buried four days later at St George’s.

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Physician Charles Collignon was the son of Paul Collignon, a minister of the Dutch church in Austin Friars. Charles began lecturing at Cambridge University in 1754. He stressed the significance of anatomy, the desirability of a legal supply of bodies for dissection, and the importance of post-mortems to improve medical knowledge. His Compendium anatomico-medicum (1756) provided a general introduction to students of anatomy. When giving a seminar on dissection someone in the audience recognized the corpse waiting to be cut up. It was that of Sterne. It appeared that the body had been stolen by some of Collignon’s students and taken to Cambridge. Charles had it sent back to London to be reburied, but no marker was placed on the grave.

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Robbing graves in order to facilitate the study of bodies and bones has been a long standing tradition in art and medicine. Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci were known for stealing corpses from morgues in order to research human anatomy. In the early eighteenth century, when dissection became an integral part of medical studies, grave robbers prospered in Britain. They were feared and despised by the public at large. In the folklore of every culture interring the remains of the dead is heavy with rituals that must be observed if the souls of the deceased are to prosper and the living not troubled by their ghosts. A body should be buried in its complete state. If a limb is missing the deceased might risk spending eternity without an arm or leg. People preserved their lost teeth so that they might be buried with them. When it comes to interment yet more superstitions apply. Sites towards the eastern and southern boundaries of a graveyard were the most desirable. The cold and dark northern quarter was allocated to criminals and suicides. The opening of a new graveyard posed a serious challenge to undertakers. No caring person would volunteer a deceased relative to be interred first, because of the widespread belief that the Devil would claim the soul of that particular corpse for himself. The difficulty was overcome by the initial burying of an animal.

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The earliest recorded medieval anatomies were also carried out on animals. The beginning of modern surgery was held back by theologians who stressed the unlawfulness of meddling with a corpse. The human body was recognized as the temple of the Holy Spirit. Hence Tertullian denounced Greek physician Herophilus, deemed to be the first anatomist, as a butcher. In 1248, the Council of Le Mans forbade surgery to monks. During the Crusades a practice arose that when a nobleman was killed in battle far from home, the body would be defleshed and his bones transported back to his estate for burial. In response, Pope Boniface VIII promulgated a law in 1299 which excommunicated anyone who disemboweled bodies of the dead or boiled them to separate the flesh from the bones. He further decreed that bodies which had been so treated were to be denied a Christian burial. Such ideas were deeply rooted in the mind of the universal Church. For considerable time surgeonship was judged to be a dishonourable profession. However, from the thirteenth century onwards, the body became increasingly part of a theological discourse. The physicality of Christ was highlighted in works of art; stories of saints and martyrdom came to include gruesome details of physical mutilation; descriptions of mystical experience took on a physical form, the most spectacular manifestation of which was the reception of stigmata as in the case of Francis of Assisi. The change in focus also made the practice of anatomy acceptable and more widespread.

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The first dissection of a human body was performed around 1315 by Mondino de Liuzzi in Bologna, but the activity remained as yet relatively isolated elsewhere in Europe. In other countries, and especially in Britain, dissections occurred much later. Physician David Edwardes was educated at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, where he was made a fellow in 1524. A year later he was in Venice where he helped to complete the Aldine version of Galen’s works in Greek and it is probable that he spent time studying in Padua, then a centre of medical excellence. In 1528 he moved to Cambridge. He is credited with being responsible for the first recorded dissection of the human body in England which took place in 1531. Anatomy teaching which included the dissection of a human corpse did not become standard practice until the middle years of the sixteenth century. Finding suitable corpses was one of the main problems. Usually, the bodies used were those of criminals or heretics – predominantly males in other words. The occasional dissection of a woman, it being a public event, attracted large numbers of spectators by the prospect of the exposure of female organs. A public dissection in those early days was both spectacle and instruction. It was a ritual attended by professionals, artists and the curious alike. A dissection was the highlight of the academic term. Within medical circles, the cutting up of a body was regarded a celebration of scientific progress.

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Medical schools in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries found it difficult to teach anatomy because the supply of bodies for dissection was limited. Legally only the corpses of convicted murderers might be used, and even those were hard to obtain because of public revulsion. Battles between family and friends with the authorities over the remains of the condemned had started to occur since the introduction of the ‘Murder Act’ of 1752 which established the public dissection of murderers following their execution. The underlying idea was the process would not only serve science, but also overwhelm the crowd with a graphic set of images that restored the deterrent element of the legal process. Dissection replaced the earlier punishment of hanging, drawing and quartering, in which the four quarters were exhibited on spikes in various parts of the city. A continuous shortage of bodies however meant that academics had to improvise their teaching methods. Some practitioners carved up the bodies of family members. Rondeler of the Montpellier Medical School dissected his own child before his students – the ultimate act of clinical detachment. William Harvey dissected the bodies of his father and sister. As a consequence of the shortage of bodies, a clandestine trade grew up of grave robbing. A dead body had cash value: it could be bought and sold – the corpse as commodity. Anatomists paid resurrectionists (the name given to those who were involved in body snatching or grave robbing) to go out at night, especially in winter when the cold would slow down putrefaction, to dig up freshly interred bodies and convey them to the medical schools. The authorities turned a blind eye to grave robbing because surgeons and students were working to advance medical knowledge. They kept publicity to a minimum in order to avoid public outrage. Moreover, body snatching was not an offence. The body was not regarded as property, and, once dead, could not be owned or stolen. Until the passing of the Anatomy Act of 1832 body snatchers were hard at work. The passing of this act allowed unclaimed bodies to be turned over to the medical profession, effectively substituting the poor and destitute for the executed.

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The public panic (often resulting in riots) created by the shenanigans of anatomists and grave robbers obscured the fact that at one time the study of anatomy was the sexiest of all scientific disciplines. Some of the most sumptuous books of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries are studies on that particular academic subject. A spectacular example is the enlarged second edition of William Cowper’s Myotomia reformata, or A New Administration of the Muscles. The book was published in London in 1724, fourteen years after Cowper’s death, and is considered to be one of the best of anatomical atlases of the eighteenth century. The first edition of the book was published in 1694 as an octavo volume containing just ten plates after the author’s own drawings of subjects which he felt had previously not been properly illustrated. In addition, an appendix was added describing the anatomy of the penis and the mechanism of erection.

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On 18 April 1693, London-born physician Richard Mead registered at the University of Leiden. It is likely that he arrived there several months earlier because he became a close friend of Archibald Pitcairne, who had settled in the city as Professor of Medicine in the spring of 1692, leaving abruptly in the summer of 1693. Mead lived in Pitcairne’s house for a time, along with Herman Boerhaave, then also a student. He left Leiden early in 1695 without taking a degree, and went on a tour of Italy before returning to London in 1696 to set up a medical practice in Stepney. He made a spectacular career and was elected to the Royal Society in 1703. Henry Pemberton arrived in Leiden in August 1714. There he joined many other English students who had crossed the Channel to study medicine under Boerhaave. Back in London, he was appointed Gresham Professor of Physics which brought him in close contact with Isaac Newton who invited him to superintend the third edition of the Principia. Mead and Pemberton joined forces to prepare the second edition of Cowper’s Myotomia reformata. Cowper had worked until his death in 1710 on a revised and expanded edition of his famous study. The book was published under Mead’s supervision and sponsorship. This substantially enlarged version that includes sixty-six plates appeared with an introduction by Pemberton. Thomas Hearne, a Bodleian librarian at the time, called it the most beautiful book ever printed in England.
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The status and popularity of anatomy made it a highly competitive domain of academic research. Rivalry in art and science is an inherent part of the creative process and has produced many noble achievements. However, if the means applied are corrupt, competition is often the cause of controversy. A notorious case is the ugly conflict between Bidloo and Cowper. In 1685, physician and anatomist Govard Bidloo published his Anatomia humani corporis in Amsterdam, using 105 plates drawn by Gerard de Lairesse which were engraved by the talented Amsterdam-born artist Abraham Blooteling. Bidloo originally accompanied the plates with a brief Latin text. A Dutch version was printed in 1690, entitled Ontleding des menschelyken lichaams. The plates were magnificent. Liège-born De Lairesse was a prolific and popular Baroque artist working in a French style (he is sometimes referred to as the ‘Dutch Poussin’). In his anatomical illustrations, which include dissected pregnancies and prematurely born infants, he portrays his subjects in classical and dramatic poses without sacrificing the harsh realism of anatomic features. Tools of dissection are also represented, including the pins, ropes, and props used to position the body parts, thus effectively pairing aesthetic refinement with graphic detail. There is room for artistic licence as well: a fly perching on a cadaver, or a smiling skeleton holding an hour glass in a mausoleum.

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Neither of Bidloo’s editions sold many copies which enabled Oxford publishers Samuel Smith and Benjamin Walford to purchase plates of the Dutch edition from its publishers in Amsterdam. Cowper used these plates and published them in his 1698 Anatomy with new and more extensive accompanying texts based upon his own original research which are often critical of his Dutch predecessor. Lettering in (offensive?) red ink was added to the plates to accommodate Cowper’s observations which, by his own count, amount to above seven-hundred references. He also commissioned nine plates drawn by Henry Cook and engraved by Antwerp-born artist Michiel van der Gucht, among which were front and back views of the entire musculature. In 1698, the first edition of this large and weighty folio (nine kilograms) was published under Cowper’s name with a faint and almost ‘hidden’ reference to Bidloo. The original engraved title-page was amended with a piece of paper that reads: The Anatomy of Humane Bodies. It covers the Dutch title. Cowper also replaced Bidloo’s portrait with one of his own. At the time of publication, the study containing 114 illustrations was hailed as the most comprehensive atlas of human anatomy. Over time the book raised the standard British approach to the study of anatomy and the practice of surgery.

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A number of vitriolic exchanges took place between these two eminent scientists which serve as an illustration of an early intellectual property dispute. An outraged Bidloo claimed that Cowper published his plates without properly crediting him, but he had no legal recourse. He (in vain) petitioned the Royal Society to revoke Cowper’s member status and wrote a series of pamphlets admonishing his actions. Just how Cowper acquired the plates is a matter of dispute. Although the plates were purchased from Bidloo’s publishers, some accounts argue that Cowper had crossed the Channel on multiple occasions to secure them under false pretences. It was in fact a common practice in the history of anatomical publication that plates were used and re-used over and again. Critics nevertheless have called Cowper’s Anatomy a blatant act of plagiarism. Our legal understanding of plagiarism of course does not apply at a time when national – let alone international – copyright laws were not in operation. Historically, governments issued monopoly-rights to publishers for the sale of printed work. Great Britain was the first to change this in April 1710 with the passing of the ‘Statute of Anne’ which stated that authors and not publishers had the right to claim a monopoly on the work. It limited exclusive rights to twenty-eight years, after which a printed work would be released to the public domain. Moreover, the plates were legally purchased in a transaction between publishers. The ‘crime’ in a world of emerging academic pomposity was Cowper’s lack of respect for the research achievements of his Dutch rival. The bitter dispute between the two anatomists made an impact on the discussion of copyright law and academic integrity in the late seventeenth century in which Britain played a leading role.

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What in the meantime had happened to the remains of Laurence Sterne? When St John’s Wood burial ground opened in 1814, St George’s was officially closed leaving some 80,000 unattended graves behind. In 1886, the grounds were turned into a recreation area and in the process most of the tombs were swept away. During the First World War the land was covered with top soil and used for growing vegetables. In 1969 the area was completely cleared and sold off for redevelopment. Urban expansion does not acknowledge the past and even in death city-dwellers find no peace. Faced with the relentless demands of progress, history sinks into the abyss of oblivion. Just prior to the indiscriminate disposal of human remains from the site, Kenneth Monkman – a keen collector of Sterneana – recovered what is believed to be Sterne’s skull. The top had been sawn off, indicating the involvement of medical students. It was reburied in the graveyard of St Michael’s Church in Coxwold, North Yorkshire, close to his former home at Shandy Hall.

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