Disputed Bodies: Narratives of Medical Research in Europe, c. 1940s to 2001

Wellcome Trust Grant (£104, 174)

February 2012 - January 2017

Dr Elizabeth Hurren

A charcoal drawing of a cadaver about to undergo dissection in modern biomedicineIn 2004 the Human Tissue Act finally repealed the Anatomy Act of 1832 (the latter was passed to help meet a shortfall in bodies for medical training by the Victorians). Today nobody can be dissected without the written consent of their living relatives or by a solicitor preparing a living will for someone who wishes to donate their body to medical science. Human cadavers cannot be used for anatomical education, transplant surgery or scientific research without a post-mortem schedule overseen by the Human Tissue Authority.  This legal correction of medical ethics followed a public outcry when Sir Liam Donaldson, (chief medical officer) announced in February 2001 that 105,000 organs, body parts and fetuses had been retained in 210 English NHS Trusts and medical schools. Of those 210, around 25 leading institutions accounted for nearly 90 per cent of the body parts retained. Donaldson found that over 16,000 organs had been kept illegally. These official disclosures raised important historical and moral questions. Not least, how is it that doctors assumed the legal right to simply do what they wanted with the dead? The sensitive question of fully informed consent, disputed bodies, and medical research, after World War II, still needs to be documented.

A new Wellcome Trust Programme Grant - WT096580/Z/11/Z – for £104, 174 - led by Dr Elizabeth Hurren – Joint PI and Reader in the Medical Humanities - based in the School of Historical Studies - examines disputed bodies in modern medical research - in collaboration with historians of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. A dedicated project (Strand 3) explores the history of pathology and those bodies acquired for dissection in Britain between the 1940s and the 1970s. We know that general medical research in this period was shaped by the availability of human bodies, biological specimens, and associated patient data. Yet, to what extent this human material was obtained without fully informed consent and on what scale is unknown.

There is no doubt that medical research on the human body was complex after World War II. The participation of the living research subject was sometimes described as a consensual partnership, at other times there was little formal consultation with dying patients or the grieving families of the deceased. Medical research tended to involve a post-mortem process which has only recently been considered as part of a person's biography and family history. This means that while recent histories of medical research speak of a "culture" of medical experiment, more needs to be known about the numbers of bodies used for medical research; what body disputes occurred, where and when; and to what extent the dead was treated with dignity by the medical profession in modern biomedicine between the 1940s and 1970s.

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