Session 1, Semester 1 review

Andrews, J. (2012) ‘Death of the dead-house in Victorian asylums: necroscopy versus mourning at the Royal Edinburgh Asylum, c. 1832-1901’

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On the 27th September 2013 the reading group began its fourth year in a rather macabre tone with Andrew’s  grim yet fascinating recent work ‘Death of the dead-house in Victorian asylums: necroscopy versus mourning at the Royal Edinburgh Asylum, c. 1832-1901’, published just last year. Chiming with the work of some of the group members, it set the stage for a lively discussion of the history of Scottish asylums.

This article examines the history of the post-mortem within Scottish asylums, charting the spatial ordering of its practice, the ‘medico-moral management’ (2012:7) of deceased bodies and their subsequent dissection. In doing so it also charts the rise of the post-mortem amidst the decline of pathology and doing so details the wider significance of these acts in terms of the meaning of dissection, the means with which it was conducted and the issues concerning consent.

In terms of the spatial ordering of these practices, Andrews’s notes that ‘Dead-house planning prioritized moro – spatial discretion and convenience of ingress/egress for corpse transportation, burial and funeral services, most adjoining coach-houses and stables at rear exists/entrance’ (2012:12) –

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(Andrews 2012: 10)

This image, included in the paper, highlights the attempt at spatial separation of the living from the dead.

However, despite the spatial distancing in physical terms, psychological distance is presented as far more blurred as the author notes the satirical skit’s which pay heed to ‘the abominations of the physic and the dissecting room’ (Morningside Mirror in Andrews 2012:13), and perhaps even more disconcerting for a midday Wednesday was the comment that ‘presumably, as at other contemporary asylums, REA’s paupers were employed in making coffins and shrouds for their cohabitants’ burials’ (2012:9). With tasks such as these, out of sight would certainly not have meant out of mind. That said, having noted that this piece was published in a historical journal, the group enjoyed the inclusion of such spatial language by a non-geographer.

Of particular interest to the group was the issue of consent. The paper states that ‘The 1832 Anatomy Act stipulated that, if unclaimed or burial within 48 hours, pauper corpses could be dissected by authorized institutional parties, or sold to a (licensed) anatomy school’ (2012:10). When consent was sought, Andrew’s suggest that practices varied and emphasized the fact that ‘many [asylums] used persuasive means to secure permission from unwilling relatives or patients’ (2012:15). As such, the paper speaks to the disposability of a particular people, in particular ways, at a particular time. At this point in the discussion, interesting reference was made to the similarities in the ways in which ‘professional pressure was exerted to convert deceased asylum patients into mere pathological artefacts, serving mental science’s higher goals of knowledge production’ (2012:21), with the ways in which asylums were positioned proximate to centers of medical excellence within Canada.

While the paper was generally well received, it was highlighted that the spatial is foregrounded within Andrew’s piece, a focus which perhaps leads the paper to skim over the personal stories, the religious issues involved in death and the debates over the morality of post-mortem practices. It was acknowledged that Andrews hints at concern over these issues but many felt that these concerns were not fully addressed. Such comments brought forth discussion of Sam. A Berty, a historian of science who has addressed these issues in his work and therefore could provide an interesting follow up read.

All in all, not your usual conversation over a piece of cake.

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