Joseph Jordan (1787 - 1873)

Born: 1787 | Died: 1873 | Grave: A 093 | Category: Medicine | Tags: Doctor, Grave robbing, History of medicine


FRCS. Surgeon from Manchester. He was the Founder of the Provincial School of Anatomy, a consulting surgeon to the Manchester Royal Informary and to the Lock Hospital, of which he was one of the Founders. As most of his career as an anatomist was before the Anatomy Act (1832), he admitted involvement in “body snatching” as a necessary evil in training surgeons. He died at South Hill Park, Hampstead.


Personal History

Born on 3rd March 1787 in Manchester, Joseph Jordan was educated at the Revd J. Birchall’s school in Manchester, and in 1802 was apprenticed to Mr John Bill, surgeon to the Manchester Infirmary. Jordan became dissatisfied and instead joined Mr William Simmons, an ambitious and progressive surgeon who was also on the honorary staff of the infirmary. He completed his professional education by attending lecture courses in Edinburgh.

In 1806 Jordan joined the Royal Lancashire regiment, where he achieved the rank of assistant surgeon. He wanted to increase his experience but did not see any active service, so in 1811 he resigned his commission. After spending a year in London continuing his studies he returned to Manchester, joined a local medical practice, and began offering lectures on anatomy at a small house near Deansgate. In 1814 he resigned from the practice and opened a school for Medicine in Bridge Street. This was claimed to be “The First Provincial School of Anatomy – Founded 1st October 1814”. In 1816 Jordan moved to larger premises. Initially his teaching was entirely devoted to anatomy and involved lectures, demonstrations and dissection. He was later joined by other surgeons and offered a broader range of subjects.

In 1815 the Apothecaries’ Act made the possession of a licence from the Society of Apothecaries (the LSA) a legal requirement for medical practitioners in England and Wales. To obtain the licence students had to attend a prescribed number of approved lectures. In 1817 Jordan’s school was recognised by the Society of Apothecaries; and four years later the Royal College of Surgeons also recognised its teaching as acceptable for their membership diploma, the MRCS.

But in 1824 a Thomas Turner opened a rival school of medicine in Pine Street, Manchester, also offering courses in all the subjects required by students aiming for the LSA and MCRS qualifications. His school is regarded as the first complete school of medicine in the provinces. There was intense competition between Turner and Jordan for students and for staff. In 1826 Jordan moved his school into purpose-built premises in Mount Street. However, his colleagues often found him difficult to work with and, in 1828, most resigned and set up another rival school. Although Jordan’s school continued to operate, he was never able to challenge Turner’s school effectively.

In 1828 and again in 1833 Jordan put himself forward for election to the honorary staff of the Manchester Infirmary, but on both occasions he failed to win sufficient votes. Infirmary elections were invariably hard fought and the support of influential individuals among both staff and subscribers was crucial. In 1834 Jordan negotiated with Turner, who had been elected honorary surgeon in 1830, to transfer his pupils to Turner’s school if Turner and his staff would support Jordan in a future election. Jordan also later transferred his anatomical museum to the school. In 1835 William Whatton, who had been the successful candidate in the 1833 election, died, and Jordan put himself forward again. He spent an enormous amount of money and invested tremendous energy in his election campaign. He won and remained on the staff of the Infirmary until 1866. He became FRCS in 1843.

Jordan was active in a number of Manchester organisations. In 1843 he became a founding member of the Chetham’s Society (a local history society). In 1857 he served as vice-president of the Manchester Royal Institution (another learned society). And in 1869 he became consulting surgeon-extraordinary to the Salford Royal Hospital. Jordan continued to live in Bridge Street until 1871, when he began to suffer serious ill health. He moved first to West High Street, Salford, then to Stroud, Gloucestershire, and finally to South Hill Park, Hampstead, London, where he died, a bachelor, on 31 March 1873.

Interesting Fact

Body snatching became so prevalent that it was not unusual for relatives and friends of someone who had just died to watch over the body until the burial, and then to keep watch over the grave after burial to stop it being raided. Sometimes people used iron coffins to stop them being broken into; or graves were protected by a cage of iron bars called mortsafes. In Hampstead and Highgate there was a horse patrol to cover the district, and one of their jobs was to patrol the area around cemeteries and catch robbers in the act.

Literary & Artistic Links

In A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens provides a good study of a resurrection-man in the person of Mr Cruncher, who worked at St Pancras Old Church

Life of Joseph Jordan – Surgeon – and an account of the rise and progress of Medical Schools in Manchester, with some particulars of the Life of Dr. Edward Stephens, by F.W. Jordan (the author, also a doctor, was Joseph Jordan’s nephew

Dylan Thomas’ play about Burke and Hare – The Doctor and the Devils (became a film in 1985)


Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

The Diary of a Resurectionist (1811/12) – the text of this book is available free through Project Gutenberg, at:

British Medical Journal: May 1873 (1; 521) – Joseph’s obituary; May 1904 (1, 1201) – a review of his nephew’s biography.

Further Resources

19th century medicine and public health –

Walking London’s Medical History, Nick Black (2006, Royal Society of Medicine Press) – this book has seven walks in central London that tell the stories of how modern healthcare developed.

Medical education in Britain today –

Ethical control of donated bodies – see Human Tissue Authority website –

Museums Dealing with the History of Medicine

(i) Science Museum – The museum deals with many aspects of science and engineering, and has in its collection a wide array of objects from various medical fields.

(ii) Wellcome Collection – Henry Wellcome was a manufacturer of pharmaceuticals who built up a large collection of interesting medical items, which are now held at this museum.

(iii) Old Operating Theatre Museum –  This site has interesting information about St Thomas’ Hospital and its work since medieval times up to the present day.


This page was last updated on December 2nd, 2020.


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