Nobody’s Dead: The Trajectories of the Corpse in Belgian Anatomy, ca. 1860-1914
In this dissertation, I relate the development of anatomy as a medical discipline to changing ideas about death and the body, and to social and political tensions. Much of historiographical focus has been on how the bodies of criminals – the only legal source of ‘anatomical material’ in early modernity – were replaced by the bodies of poor hospital patients in the early nineteenth century. Research has shown that dissection was part of severe anti-poverty policies, in which being poor was understood as one’s own responsibility and fault. Harsh attitudes towards the poor, combined with the increasing importance of anatomy in medical research and education, resulted in the dissection of the poor without their consent.
However, as I argue for the first time in this dissertation, the end of the nineteenth century was marked by an opposite - and opposing - trend. On the one hand, a loss of scientific prestige and the gradual specialization of the medical field impeded anatomists’ access to dead bodies. On the other hand, social tensions led to - and echoed - more permissive attitudes towards the poor. Relatives and dying patients gradually obtained the right to take decisions on the fate of the dead body. The individualization of death rites and the development of medical ethics based on patient autonomy had a profound impact on the acquisition, treatment and disposal of anatomical remains. Voluntary donations gradually replaced the involuntary dissection of the poor, the outward appearances of the corpse became more important during autopsies, and dissected bodies were no longer inhumed anonymously, but received an individual, marked grave.