How 18th- and 19th-Century Babies Contributed to Science

Nick Saffell
Nick Saffell / Nick Saffell

It’s one of science’s most unpleasant paradoxes: to learn about the things we love most, sometimes we have to take them apart. Researchers at Cambridge University have found that, far from being ignored, the bodies of infants and fetuses were "a prized source of knowledge" for early British medical scientists, as the researchers write in a new study in the Journal of Anatomy.

Today, donating one’s body to science is often seen as a noble and generous act. Two hundred years ago, this was not at all the case. Autopsy and dissection were viewed as sacrilegious violations, which meant that body donations were nonexistent. But the absence of supply didn’t affect the demand; medical schools and researchers still needed cadavers, and they were willing to do whatever it took to get them.

Sometimes that meant breaking the law. Other times it meant pressuring the government to change the law. The Murder Act of 1752 made it legal to dissect the bodies of convicted and executed murderers. The resulting influx of legal cadavers was welcome, but it still wasn’t enough. Institutions began making shady deals with so-called resurrectionists who would bring them the bodies they needed, no questions asked. The body-snatchers sold their cadavers by the inch, which meant that men’s bodies were the most profitable to steal. But, then as now, scientists realized that there is a limit to how much you can learn about people by studying only men. Younger bodies, on the other hand, had much to teach about human development, and they were better suited to preservation and display.

Disease, overcrowding, and infant mortality were facts of life toward the end of the Industrial Revolution. Lawmakers created the Anatomy Act in 1832, which permitted hospitals and workhouses to hand over any unclaimed remains, many of which belonged to small children. Two years later, research institutions profited again, this time from the New Poor Law Amendment Act. The brutal legislation curtailed all forms of government assistance and child support for unwed mothers, leaving many impoverished women more desperate than ever.

Paper co-author Piers Mitchell says the act may have been the single greatest influence on the availability of infant and fetal bodies. “[It] left very few options for these women: the workhouse, prostitution, abortion and infanticide—all of which were life-threatening," he said in a press statement. As women’s mortality rose, so too did that of their children.

Grim though the transactions were, co-author Jenna Dittmar says, anatomists’ interest in infant and fetal remains likely provided some families with a small measure of relief.

"Poor and desperate women at the time of the industrial revolution could not only save the cost of a funeral by passing their child's body to an anatomist, but also be paid as well,” she said. “This money would help feed poor families, so the misfortune of one life lost could help their siblings to survive tough times."

Dittmar and Mitchell reviewed their university’s collection of remains from the 19th century and have concluded that there’s a reason that historians have overlooked anatomists’ interest in infants and fetuses. The remains of the very young were treated differently, thereby leaving behind a different kind of evidence—one that was easily overlooked. Unlike adult skeletons, which were frequently carved to pieces, those of children were considered quite carefully.

Image credits: L, Jenna Dittmar. R, The Journal of Anatomy

"The skulls appear to have been intentionally spared to preserve them for teaching or display,” Dittmar says. “This may explain why so few children with signs of dissection on their bones have been recovered from the burial grounds of hospitals or parish churches, compared with adults."

“Fetal and infant bodies were clearly valued by anatomists,” she says, “illustrated by the measures taken to preserve the remains intact and undamaged.”

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