Human Remains

27/4/12 – Helen McDonald: Human Dissection in the 1900’s

Helen Macdonald provides an interesting and a very detailed discussion about human dissection in the 19th century. Macdonald also relates to case studies in relation to autopsy, criminal punishment and body snatching, which effectively engages the reader from the beginning right to the end of the book.

In Human Remains, Macdonald investigates how surgeons or medical professionals from the 1900’s dissected, mutilated or dismembered certain parts of the body, which belonged to murderer’s and criminals who disobeyed the law or certain regulations.

The skull was analysed in close detail in order to identify age, gender and race, which often highlighted different cultures or environments. Many corpses were used to identify how or why a particular person had died and to train students, who had decided to pursue a career in medicine / autopsy.  Macdonald argues that some bodies or corpses have suffered mistreatment for centuries, which highlights society’s fascination with the dead.

Finally Macdonald highlights that skulls have become commercialised, which are passed from one person to the other. In the conclusion Macdonald also refers to recent case studies from 1990 – 2000, which also emphasises how the body has been misused and man’s desire to closely examine the ‘human anatomy’.


1. Has human dissection provided an understanding for the ‘human anatomy’?

2. Is dissection considered as a form of disrespect or indecency?

3. Is the skull treated as a commercial product or a collectable item in the 21st century?

4. If so will the skull ever loose it’s value? will the skull ever go out of fashion?


Centuries of human dissection may have provided an understanding for different parts of the body, which may have also provided the ability to create cures for certain illnesses. Without dissection would medicine be where it is today? Macdonald also differentiates ‘dissesction’ from ‘examination’, which closely observes the body without dissection. Would surgeons still be able to grasp an understanding for the human body without dissecting?

One could argue that ‘Grave robbing’ is disrespectful, especially for families or friends that have prepared and organised a ceremony for that particular person. It would be quite unsettling to know that a person you once knew was no longer in one piece. Macdonald also mentions how surgeons or medical professionals fail to seek consent or approval from families before dissection. What if the person did not have a family? How could it be possible to obtain consent?

Depending on the the context or the scenario some cases are more extreme than others. Was there any purpose in dissecting a young and perfectly healthy body? Macdonald highlights that there were many surgeons who believed that they had the authority to perform a dissection, which also question whether ‘human remains’ become a desirable or consumable object.

Ebay for instance also demonstrates that there is still a market for real human skulls or bones, which may reflect society’s fascination with death. Has the 21st century really changed it’s attitude towards the collection of ‘human remains’? it could be argued that just about anything can be purchased or distributed over the internet including skulls and other bones from the body.

MacDonald, Helen. Human Remains: Dissection and It’s Histories.  Australia: Melbourne University Press, 2005


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