Woodward has an exhibit on body snatching, a practice as grim as it sounds

From September 17 to November 3, the Woodward Library Memorial Room is hosting an exhibit titled Body Snatching & the Roots of Anatomy. You may be asking yourself, just what is body snatching?

This antiquated practice is as grim as it sounds.

In the 18th century, universities were increasingly requiring their students to take anatomy courses, and the only legal supply of corpses came from criminals condemned to death. The number of men who committed offences deemed heinous enough to warrant this was very small in comparison to the number of specimens that the students needed for their studies.

So for a long time, anatomy students made great strides in their discipline by engaging in grave robbery, murder and the trafficking of corpses.

It’s disturbing to find out that anatomy was developed out of such horrible practices, but one must recognize the debt that modern medicine owes to the great speed at which body snatching allowed the discipline to develop. Law enforcement turned a blind eye to grave robbing in the UK, seeing it as a necessary evil.

The practice eventually faded, said Helen Brown, a reference librarian at Woodward. Gradually, “legislation made bodies available through other sources,” said Brown.

Among the articles on display at Woodward are books depicting body snatching, antique anatomical instruments, anatomy textbooks, and a copy of a death mask belonging to William Burke, the notorious murderer and corpse tradesman who slayed and sold sixteen bodies in Scotland in 1828.

After the exhibit, the materials will return to Irving K. Barber in the rare books and special collections section, where they and many other books and materials can be viewed by any student that presents their student ID.

“The Woodward Library has a very extensive history of medicine and science collection,” Brown said. “The most important thing about this exhibit [is] letting people know that we have these materials and that you can actually go and request them at the reading room.”

Catch the exhibit before it’s put back in the archive before November 3, or head over to rare books and special collections to hunt for some rarities.

Part of the exhibit at Woodward
Part of the exhibit at Woodward Eldon Graham

A previous version of this article stated that the exhibit includes a bust of Burke, which it does not. The Ubyssey regrets this error.