Joseph Jordan: anatomy teacher, surgeon and body snatcher


Explore – the murky history of medical education

Discuss – the importance of first hand investigation and experience

Discover – how modern healthcare systems evolved


Subject Areas

Science History – Scientific method and the need for first hand observation/ investigation

History of medical education/ healthcare; Victorian Britain – healthcare

Citizenship/ PSHE – Changes in social and moral standards and customs over time; Making difficult choices


Possible Topics

• Compare the training to become a surgeon in the 1800s with today

• Contrast the practice of body snatching before the Anatomy Act (1832) – and The Resurrectionists (Burke & Hare; the London Burkers) – with present controls over donation

• Reasons for changes in ethical standards (public attitudes, role of institutions, technology, the “Respect” agenda, etc)


Suggested Activities

• Visit somewhere related to the history of medical education (some suggestions are listed below)

• Discuss the rights of the deceased and their families, compared with the rights of patients to expect properly trained doctors

• Think of different ways of learning about the workings of the human body before there were books and DVDs to help

• Using examples of students’ experiences of modern healthcare, explore how serious medical conditions were treated in Victorian Britain


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.


Grave-robbing – for the greater good?

Before the passing of the Anatomy Act of 1832, bodies for dissection were few and far between. The only legal supply of corpses for anatomical purposes in the UK was of people condemned to death and dissection by the courts. Those who were sentenced to dissection by the courts were often guilty of comparatively harsher crimes. However these did not provide enough subjects for the growing number of medical schools and private anatomy schools. It was a common practice for lecturers and their medical students to employ unscrupulous means to obtain these bodies. Before electric power enabled refrigeration, bodies would decay rapidly and quickly become unusable for study, so the medical profession turned to body snatching to supply the deficit of fresh bodies that were needed.

Stealing a corpse was only a misdemeanour at common law, not a felony, and was therefore only punishable with a fine or imprisonment rather than transportation or execution. The trade was a sufficiently lucrative business to make it worth running the risk of detection, particularly as the authorities tended to ignore what they considered was a “necessary evil”.

One method the body snatchers used was to dig a sloping tunnel at the head end of a recent burial, using a wooden spade (which was quieter than metal). When they reached the coffin (in London the graves were quite shallow), they broke open the end, put a rope around the corpse and dragged it out. They were careful not to steal anything such as jewellery or clothes as this would cause them to be liable to a felony charge. Removing the body this way meant that the ground above the coffin was left undisturbed if anyone came to look.

Jordan admitted to being involved in this ‘body-snatching’ – both in stealing bodies from graves together with his students, and in buying corpses from professional ‘resurrectionists’ (who charged £10 per body). This was necessary to secure a reasonable supply of the corpses which were essential for the success of his school. However, he didn’t get away with it completely. On one occasion Jordan was fined £20 by a magistrate for his involvement in ‘bodysnatching’; on another, angry crowds smashed windows in his school after a consignment of “fresh” bodies was discovered.

The most infamous grave-robbers were a pair of Irishmen, Burke and Hare, who worked in Edinburgh. These two men decided to solve their financial problems by tackling the problem that the shortage of bodies meant for university students. They changed their tactics from grave-digging to murder, as they were paid more for very fresh corpses and could increase the supply to order. It was their activities, and those of the ‘London Burkers’ who imitated them, which resulted in the Anatomy Act 1832. This allowed unclaimed bodies and those donated by relatives to be used for the study of anatomy, and required the licensing of anatomy teachers. These changes effectively ended this trade.

The use of bodies for scientific research in the UK is now governed by the Human Tissue Authority. This licenses organisations that store and use human tissue for purposes such as research, patient treatment, post-mortem examination, teaching and public exhibitions. They also approve organ and bone marrow donations from living people.


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 –

Hospitals in Hampstead on this 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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