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Body snatching

In 1752 Parliament passed the Murder Act which allowed for the corpses of executed murderers to be taken to the Company of Surgeons in London for study and teaching.  

Surgeons and resurrectionists

As the teaching of medicine and surgery rapidly became more advanced, and as more medical schools were founded, by the late 18th century there was a serious shortage of corpses legally available for dissection.  

Teachers of anatomy were often forced to purchase bodies from London gangs of resurrectionists who made a living from digging up newly-buried bodies at night and selling them. Sometimes teachers, and even students, stole bodies themselves.

In the late 1820s the infamous duo, Burke and Hare, ran a thriving trade in supplying bodies to Edinburgh's College of Medicine.

The two men were not body snatchers in the conventional sense.  Instead of robbing graves they resorted to serial murder. The revelation of their crimes in 1828 led to a huge public outcry, although eminent surgeons had been urging Parliament to change the law for many years.  

Anatomy Acts

In 1828 the problem of acquiring bodies for medical research was investigated by a select committee of the House of Commons, but an initial attempt at legislation failed.  

The Royal College (formerly Company) of Surgeons in London were anxious not to give up or change any of its privileges. In addition, some MPs were dismayed by a proposal to make the corpses of the poor and destitute available for anatomical study.

However, the Anatomy Act of 1832 gave surgeons and their students legal access to bodies from workhouses, hospitals and prisons that were unclaimed 48 hours after death. It was also made possible for a person to donate a next of kin's body for medical study.    

Human Tissue Act

Several Acts of Parliament touched on the lawful use of dead bodies before the introduction of the Human Tissue Act 2004. The key pieces of legislation were the Anatomy Act 1984 which enabled people to donate their bodies for anatomical examination, the Human Tissue Act 1961 which governed removal and retention of organs after a post-mortem, and the Coroners Act 1988.

In 2004 Parliament passed the Human Tissue Act that created the Human Tissue Authority (HTA) which operates codes of practice on all aspects of the use of human remains for medical science. This new legislation makes it clear that personal informed consent is needed for body and organ donation.

The HTA regulates organisations that remove, store and use tissue for research, medical treatment, post-mortem examination, teaching and display in public. The HTA also gives approval for organ and bone marrow donations from living people.

The Human Tissue (Scotland) Act 2006 establishes the need for authorisation in writing to use a person's organs for medical science in Scotland.


Page last updated 1st May 2014