Bodysnatching and the Medical History of London

Richard Barnett takes us on a tour of some of the places, characters and events of medical London.
29 March 2009

Interview with 

Richard Barnett


Kat - This week, we're looking at the history of medicine, and with it's rich history of plagues and epidemics, London seems a good place to start.  Tom Bell, our back Yard archaeologist in the Naked Archaeology podcasts, met up with Dr Richard Barnett, from Cambridge University, to find out why he thought London was a fitting subject for his book, "Sick City".  He started off with a reading from the book

Richard - In December 1831, John Bishop and Thomas Williams were hanged at Newgate Prison. Their execution was pure spectacle. Several thousand boisterous Londoners thronged the streets around the narrow prison to watch them dance the hemp and jig. Bishop and Williams began their careers as labourers but in the mid 1820s they found a more profitable use for their shovels and picks. They became body snatchers or resurrection men, digging up the recently deceased and hawking their bodies around the medical schools. Body snatching was officially frowned upon as a violation of the sanctity of the grave. In private, however, surgeons and anatomists encouraged their pupils to obtain bodies for themselves in any way they could. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century body snatching was big business. A vigorous black economy with a hierarchy as intricate as any modern-day long firm. Certain taverns: The Fortune of War opposite St Bartholomew's Hospital; The Bricklayer's Arms in Lambeth became notorious as the haunt of resurrection gangs. Anyone venturing into the cellar for an illicit pint might find themselves in less lively company than they'd bargained for.

City burial grounds became contested territory as rival gangs fought turf wars over the most lucrative bone yards. In the cemetery of St Sepulchre-Without-Newgate which had the misfortune to lie between Newgate Prison, St Bartholomew's, The Company of Surgeons and The Fortune of War body snatching became so rife that the church elders forced the hospital governors to provide a gatehouse and an unbribeable night-watchman.

Tom - So Richard, it's not a good idea to get buried in this period in London...

Richard - Very bad, it does make you wonder how many graves in the city of London actually have bodies in them.

Tom - Why is London so special in the history of medicine?

Richard - Well, what I tried to do in sick city was to show the way in which the story of London and the story of medicine are so closely intertwined. In a sense, the best way to understand the history of medicine is to look at the history of London and vice versa. So many of the leading medical institutions of this country have been based in London. So many medical theories were developed here. More broadly, of course the history of London's population; the many different groups of people we've had living here bring so many different perspectives on the history of medicine. By looking at the history of London you can understand not only doctors, not only surgeons but also patients, quacks. You can understand how different ethnic groups, different social groups experienced medicine and also how they treated themselves. Folk medicine is a big part of London's history. It's a massive, sprawling - I think for me - irresistible story to try and teach and writ e the history of medicine in London.

Tom - Out of this massive, sprawling, irresistible story of the medical history of London what is your favourite bit that we can still see today?

Herb Garret Operating TheatreRichard - I think the Old Operating Theatre and Herb Garret is a wonderful place to go and start to learn about the history of medicine. One of the best things about it is, as you probably know the Garret is built above a church. When they were refurbishing the Garret they found that the floor space beneath the operating theatre was filled with sawdust so that blood didn't drip down into the nave of the church during operations. I think my personal favourite would be the church of St Bartholomew at Smithfield, Bart the Great as it's known. This is one of the oldest churches in the City of London. It was built in 1123 and it's really the last remnant of pre-modern monastic medicine. Obviously it's a church these days but I think it gives you some sense of what hospitals before the dissolution of the monasteries in the 13th and 14th centuries were really like. It's wonderfully atmospheric.

Tom - You mentioned this date, 1123 which leads me onto my next question - can we call the medicine of 2000 years ago 'medicine?'

Richard - Well, of course if we go back 2000 years in London's history what we think of is the Romans. We can certainly talk about medical practitioners, doctors and surgeons in Roman society, Roman culture. They would have understood that. Just within the history of London there's a rather nice example of sports medicine that the Romans did. During excavations at the site of the Guildhall they uncovered a set of medical implements, closely associated with the gladiatorial games. Doctors were clearly looking after, as it were, the sports cars; the wrestlers of their day. It's a really good question: where does medical practise begin and end? It's very difficult to take our modern notions of medicine, surgery and just simply apply them willy-nilly back to the past. Trepanning is a great example of this. If you look at skulls from the Bronze Age, the Iron Age fairly frequently they'll have holes drilled in them. Some modern surgeons have interpreted this as a kind of surgical procedure. Very often they would do the same sort of thing to relieve pressure on the brain after injury. Of course, we have no idea what these were being done for: whether it was some sort of ritual, whether it was perhaps some sort of punishment or whether indeed it was medicine. It's very difficult to set a start date or set the limits to what is medical practise.

Tom - Who is your favourite character from the history of medicine in London?

Richard - There are so many to choose from. I think my favourite is John St John Long - a 19th century quack. Long was born in Ireland but he came to London in the 1820s to try and be a fashionable portrait painter. He failed at this but he did have extremely good looks and the classic Irish, sort of, silver tongue: he'd kissed the Blarney Stone. He realised that he could become a great success as a quack with a fashionable, young, rich, clientèle. He offered several treatments. Probably the most famous was a massage of a balm, an ointment that he made up from turpentine and egg yolks and various other unattractive ingredients and he'd massage this into the backs and shoulders of attractive rich young women. They liked it very much indeed. Unfortunately in the 1830s, Long was prosecuted for manslaughter after several of his patients died. During his trial the court was filled with these beautiful young women that he'd treated. They cheered him and eventually when he was convicted and fined £250 (an enormous sum of money in the 19th century) they paid it for him by subscription. In a sense he got away scot-free.


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