Equality after Death: The Dissection of the Female Body for Anatomical Education in Nineteenth-Century England

Jenna M Dittmar*, Piers D Mitchell

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Since the medieval period, anatomical dissection has been considered a cornerstone of medical education. In recent decades, several archaeological excavations have uncovered evidence of this practice in the form of tool marks on human skeletal remains. At the majority of sites where dissected individuals were uncovered, remains of men considerably outnumbered those of women. The aim of this research is to investigate how postmortem treatment of medicalized bodies differed according to sex during the nineteenth century. To assess differences in treatment, the skeletal remains of dissected adult male (n = 74) and female (n = 25) individuals from the Royal London Hospital and the University of Cambridge were analyzed both macro-and microscopically. The location and orientation of the tool marks were recorded, and silicone molds (n = 41) of selected tool marks were analyzed using scanning electron microscopy. The assessment of the tool marks revealed no differences in how the bodies of men and women were dissected, nor were there any differences in the tools used. This finding suggests that the sociopolitical status of women, which necessitated their protected treatment during life, shifted drastically after death. Rather than a preference to dissect male bodies, the sex disparity in the archaeological record can be explained by the social roles of women, which made it less likely that they would die in hospitals or remain unclaimed from workhouses. However, the bodies of women that were dissected were not viewed as fragile or afforded protected status by anatomists, as they were dissected in the same manner as the bodies of men
Original languageEnglish
JournalBioarchaeology International
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 16 Oct 2018


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