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At the beginning of the 18th century, due to difficulty finding bodies for dissection purposes, it is accounted that there were a series of attempts, by Oxford academics, at body snatching. There were also a series of confrontations between the families of those being executed and the Oxford academics who by Royal Charter had a right to take away the bodies of executed persons for the purpose of medical research. Often families would be present at executions with a coffin to bury the deceased, and the scholars would take away the body by force.

A room of students watch as three physicians dissect an body, with organs fed through to a bucket© Wellcome Trust

"The Reward of Cruelty", anatomical teaching using the body of executed person

During the 1730s, Frank Nicholls, an anatomy lecturer at Oxford, was considered to be the leading anatomy teacher in the country. It is thought that he played some part in the development of anatomical teaching in America, since his son sent his father’s preparations and specimens to Harvard. He recognised that arteries are supplied with nerves and suggested that these might play a part in regulating the blood pressure, anticipating work on the sympathetic nervous system by over 100 years. Nicholls is famous for his injecting methods, as he used a coloured varnish. He was the first to make corroded preparations, in which a particular part of an organ is left prominent after an injection, the surrounding structures being removed piecemeal. 

Portrait of Frank Nicholls© Wellcome Trust

Frank Nicholls

The Murder Act passed in Great Britain in 1752, which meant that only corpses of executed murderers could be used for dissection.

Engraving of a woman climbing a ladder to the scaffold titled "Miss Blandy at the place of execution near Oxford"© Wellcome Trust

Oxford execution

When John Freind, a physician and chemistry lecturer at Oxford, died in 1728, he left £1000 in his will to build an Anatomy School at Christ Church and endow a college readership. However, the money Freind left was not enough and so the financial responsibility for carrying out Freind’s idea was due to Dr Matthew Lee. Like Freind, Lee went to Westminster and Christ Church. He was a physician who practised in Oxford. He died in 1755, and in his will left £100 a year for a Reader of Anatomy; the Reader had to be a Westminster student of Christ Church, studying medicine at Oxford, and had to regularly complete courses on Anatomy. £40 a year was dedicated towards the expenses of procuring bodies and making proper anatomical preparations.

Portrait of John FreindEngraving of the Anatomy School with a student in front in traditional robes© Wellcome Trust

John Freind and The Anatomy School at Christ Church

In 1767 the first Reader was elected: Dr John Parsons. He supervised completion of the Anatomy School at Christ Church. This included a lecture room, basement for dissection, and hole dug into ground for depositing bodies after lectures. This part of Christ Church was known as ‘Skeleton Corner’. The Anatomy School in the Bodleian Schools Quadrangle became unnecessary and thus became the first of the Schools to be given over to the Library.

A series of boxed specimens and a fossil skeleton inside the Anatomy School© Christ Church Library and ArchivesLecture notes with a few diagram sketches© Christ Church Library and Archives

The interior of the Anatomy School at Christ Church and notes taken in Parsons' Lectures

Dr George Aldrich left an endowment for a series of ‘Aldrichian Praelectorships’ at Oxford in 1797. This included the Aldrichian Praelectorship in Anatomy, which required the reader to take courses on physiology, thus becoming the first academic teaching post in physiology at Oxford. In fact the word ‘physiology’ had only been introduced into medical sciences earlier that century, to signify the study of bodily functions.

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