The bodies of foetuses and babies were a “prized source of knowledge” for British scientists in the 18th and 19th centuries and were dissected more commonly than previously thought and quite differently to adult cadavers, new research reveals.
Historical research combined with the archaeological assessment of collection specimens shows that foetus and infant cadavers were valued for the study of growth and development, and were often kept in anatomical museums, says a study of the University of Cambridge anatomy collection.
“Foetal and infant bodies were clearly valued by anatomists, illustrated by the measures taken to preserve the remains intact and undamaged,” said Jenna Dittmar from Cambridge’s department of archaeology and anthropology.
The skulls appear to have been intentionally spared to preserve them for teaching or display.
“This may explain why so few children with signs of dissection on their bones have been recovered from the burial grounds of hospitals or parish churches, compared with adults,” Dittmar added.
Researchers say that socio-cultural factors and changes in the law, as well as the spread of infectious diseases during the industrial revolution, dictated the availability of these small bodies for dissection.
The study, published in the Journal of Anatomy, is the first to look specifically at how British scientists investigated the changing anatomy of childhood during the 1800s.
While the bodies of adults typically underwent a craniotomy – opening of the top of the skull using a saw – the researchers found that anatomists generally kept the skulls of foetuses and young children in one piece.
From a total of 54 foetal and infant specimens in the collection, just one had undergone a craniotomy.
The research suggests that anatomists kept the skeletal remains of foetuses and infants for further study and use as teaching aids, whereas adults were frequently reburied after dissection.
“The valuable and unique knowledge that could only be obtained from the examination of these developing bodies made them essential to the study of anatomy,” informed Dittmar.
The research shows that the major sources of the bodies of very young children were from stillborn babies of destitute mothers, babies who died from infectious diseases, those dying in charitable hospitals and unmarried mothers who secretly murdered their new-born to avoid the social stigma.
“Poor and desperate women at the time of the industrial revolution could not only save the cost of a funeral by passing their child’s body to an anatomist but also be paid as well,” added Piers Mitchell from Cambridge.