30 October 2014

The Dissection of Jeremy Bentham, or the Auto-Icon

On the unusual events that occurred immediately following the death of English philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), one of the key founders of utilitarian thought:

He had specified in his will that his body was to be offered up for public dissection, a useful thing in itself. At that time, because of the doctrine of the resurrection of the flesh (when Christ will supposedly return at the Last Judgement to open the graves of the dead), there was still a Christian taboo against not burying bodies. This meant there was a general shortage of specimens for pathologists to work on. 
Before the dissection began, at London's Webb Street School of Anatomy, twenty-eight of Bentham's friends gathered to say farewell. His corpse lay before them in a simple nightshirt. In a scene straight out of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (then just into its second edition), the funeral oration was dramatically accompanied "with thunder pealing overhead and lightning flashing through the gloom". Once the eulogy had finished, Dr Southwood Smith made sure, as Bentham's will had specified, "to ascertain by appropriate experiment that no life remains". He then carefully stripped the flesh from the bones and placed the internal organs and "the soft parts" in labelled glass containers "like wine decanters". His cleaned bones were then pinned together with copper wire and the skeleton dressed in a suit of Bentham's clothes, padded out with hay, straw and cotton wool. A sachet of lavender and naphthalene was placed in the stomach cavity to discourage moths. Again adhering to the instructions in his will, the body was seated in "a Chair usually occupied by me when living in the attitude in which I am sitting when engaged in thought". The whole ensemble was to be enhanced by the presence of Dapple, his favourite walking stick, and topped off with his actual head (well preserved and with a suitable hat on it). 
- John Lloyd & John Mitchinson, The QI Book of the Dead, London, 2009, p390-1.

The head preservation didn't go according to plan, so a waxwork model was put in its place, but the real Bentham's mummified head was placed into a display cabinet with the rest of the 'exhibit' and lay at Bentham's feet, until it was placed into safe storage much later, on account of it being subject to many university pranks. These resulted because Bentham's body has been on public display since his death. Since 1850 the body, which Bentham described as his 'Auto-Icon', has resided in University College London, and his remains can still be seen today.

The Times of 7 June 1832, the day after Bentham's death in London aged 84, carried an obituary 'from a most respectable [unnamed] gentleman well acquainted with the deceased':

In conformity with the desire of his father, he practised for a short time in equity, and was immediately remarked for the ability he displayed; but the death of his father left him with a moderate fortune and the free choice of his course of life, when he at once abandoned all prospects of professional emoluments and honours, and devoted the whole of his subsequent life to those labours which he believed would produce the greatest happiness to his fellow-creatures. His extreme benevolence and cheerfulness of disposition are highly spoken of by all who had the honour to be admitted to his society, which was much sought after, and also by his domestics and by his neighbours who were acquainted with his habits. The news of the Reform Bill having been carried greatly cheered his last hours.     
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