The language of colours

November 29, 2015

Which came first, the colour orange or the fruit orange? This is a question that has tormented me for longer than I care to remember. I am now able to provide an answer. The earliest evidence for the use of orange as a colour term in English comes from 1512. In Old English, you would have said “yellow-red”. The Arabic word nāranj was borrowed by a number of European languages. So we have Spanish (naranja), Italian (narancia), and Byzantine Greek (nerantzion). You will have noticed that that all of these words begin with the letter n. Why is it not present in English? This is probably down to a linguistic phenomenon known as rebracketing. This is typical with words borrowed from other languages. In the case of orange the n from the start of a noun was transferred onto the end of the a form of the indefinite article. There are other examples:

adder: from a naddre

apron: from a napron

nickname  from an ekename

So we should really be saying a norange. Perhaps I could start a campaign to bring back the n. English is not the only Ianguage that has lost the n. In Italian they now say arancione and in French it is of course orange. Curiously, in Portugal they say laranja. For all you language geeks out there, here is a linguistic map of orange in different European languages:

orange map

Today I’m going to look at the fascinating world of colours. There are just so many words in English to describe colours. A quick search of internet comes up with amethyst (light purple) fawn (light brown), magenta (purple-red), puce (between dark brown or dark red and purple), vermilion (bright red or red-orange) and smalt (medium blue). I have to confess to not being familiar with many of these terms. I became interested in this subject after listening to a BBC Word of Mouth podcast on colour words.

In the programme they refer to the universalist theory of colour cognition, which argues that it is an innate, physiological process and not a cultural one. In their 1969 book Basic Colour Terms, Brent Berlin and Paul Kay sought to show an evolutionary sequence of colour terms. Almost all of the languages they examined appeared to have colour words that drew from the same 11 basic colours, starting with white and black, proceeding  to red, then green and yellow, then blue, then brown, and finally to orange and purple. There are many other colour terms, but they will derive from these basic ones. Burgundy, claret and scarlet are all kinds of red, but red is not a kind of burgundy.

Berlin and Kay are also identified the following patterns. Steven Pinker likens it the Crayola product line, with the fancier ones adding colours to the more basic ones:

  • All languages contain terms for black and white.
  • If a language contains three terms, then it contains a term for red.
  • If a language contains four terms, then it contains a term for either green or yellow (but not both).
  • If a language contains five terms, then it contains terms for both green and yellow.
  • If a language contains six terms, then it contains a term for blue.
  • If a language contains seven terms, then it contains a term for brown.
  • If a language contains eight or more terms, then it contains terms for purple, pink, orange, and/or grey.

There are, nevertheless, subjective elements of colour perception and language. Two particularly interesting colours are blue and green. Many languages do not distinguish between them. Instead, they use a cover term, grue if you will, which spans both colours. Jules Davidoff, a psychologist from Goldsmiths University of London carried out a famous experiment with the Himba tribe from Namibia, whose language has no word for word for blue and no real distinction between green and blue. They were shown a circle with 11 green squares and one blue square. And they really did struggle to tell the psychologist which of the squares was a different colour to the others. However, the Himba have more words for types of green than we do in English, and when they looked at a circle of green squares, they were able to pick out a different shade of green extremely quickly.

So in linguistics we have the debate between relativists and universalists, which can apparently get rather heated at times. Who is right? It is a bit difficult for a layman to appreciate all the subtleties of this debate. Barbara Sanders criticised the evolutionary component of Berlin and Kay’s theory as “an endorsement of the idea of progress” and accuses them Eurocentric bias. Others have criticised their methodology.

It is somewhat reminiscent of the nature-nurture debate. And like that long-running question, it may well be a mixture of both. Anna Franklin, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Sussex, and her colleagues recently demonstrated that pre-linguistic human babies perceive some of the same colour boundaries as English-speaking adults. Do we need to have a word for a colour to see it? The answer to that question is clearly no; our ability to categorize colours exists when we are infants, before we learn language. What happens, though, is that as you learn the words for colour, as your categories become more linguistic, they become more left-hemisphere dominant. According to Franklin, sometime between infancy and adulthood colour categories move hemispheres. I am not a fan of the idea that language shapes thought. I have argued in previous posts that this influenced is greatly exaggerated. But, there is no doubt that this debate has not yet been decided.

A couple of videos about colour

November 29, 2015

Here are a couple of videos I found while researching this week’s atricle:


To diet for: the art of wishful shrinking

November 22, 2015

My doctor told me to stop having intimate dinners for four. Unless there are three other people. Orson Welles

A waist is a terrible thing to mind. Tom Wilson

If I had been around when Rubens was painting, I would have been revered as a fabulous model. Kate Moss? Well, she would have been the paintbrush. Dawn French

Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow ye diet. Lewis C. Henry


Dieting is a massive business, worth over $20bn in the US alone, where there are said to be more 100 million people on a diet. There are low-fat, low-carbohydrate, low-calorie and detox diets. Some, such as the Atkins diet, have become famous around the world but there are diets in all shapes and sizes. Wikipedia has a list of them. Here is just a small sample of the more bizarre ones:

Beverly Hills diet: An extreme diet which has only fruits in the first days, gradually increasing the selection of foods up to the sixth week.

Breatharian diet: A diet in which no food is consumed, based on the belief that food is not necessary for human subsistence.

Grapefruit diet: A fad diet, intended to facilitate weight loss, in which grapefruit is consumed in large quantities at meal times.

Israeli Army diet: An eight-day diet. Only apples are consumed in the first two days, cheese in the following two days, chicken on days five and six, and salad for the final two days. Despite what the name suggests, the diet is not followed by Israeli Defence Forces. It is considered a fad diet.

KE diet: A diet in which an individual feeds through a feeding tube and does not eat anything.

Subway diet: A crash diet in which a person consumes Subway sandwiches in place of higher calorie fast foods. Made famous by former obese student Jared Fogle, who lost 245 pounds after replacing his meals with Subway sandwiches as part of an effort to lose weight.

Tongue Patch diet: Stitching a Marlex patch to the tongue to make eating painful.

Why has dieting become so popular? One factor is modernity: we are living in such anomalous abundance. In the past it was the rich who were fat; it was a sign of status. Now it is often the poor who are overweight. There is undoubtedly an evolutionary mismatch – food with sugar and fat was essential for survival and those who stored it passed on their genes. This helped us survive in less abundant times, but it is now creating a health epidemic. There is research which suggests that high sugar foods are addictive. They cause dopamine to be released in our brains, and they actually impair cognitive function.

In the end we have to deal with the world we actually live in. I know what I should do, despite some contradictory advice and some fads, Michael Pollan’s advice is a good place to start:

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

But the psychology is complicated. We face an internal struggle between systems 1 and 2 of our brain. The reflective part knows what to do, but the emotional parts often override these noble intentions. Willpower is necessary in the face of instant gratification. We face what is an immediate pleasure and an indeterminate harm some time in the future.  Perhaps we need to look at how we frame advice. Fear is usually the mechanism chosen; you will have a miserable and a premature death. Maybe we need to focus on the benefits of a healthy diet, all the energy and vitality you will gain,

One interesting idea from economics is the commitment contract. The idea is that you make a pledge to achieve a goal. There is a website, founded by two Harvard economists,, where you can make these pledges. If you do not reach this target then you have to pay donate a specified amount of money to the person or organisation you specified. On the website the recipients are charities, but to really spice things up, it should be to organisations whose aims you despise. This gives an even stronger incentive to keep you word. The 2005 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences winner, Tom Schelling, a key figure in game-theory analysis, suggested the American Nazi Party. As a sceptic I might plump for an organisation promoting homeopathy.

Temptation bundling involves together two activities together. One must be one you should do, but keep putting off, whereas the other one is you love to do but isn’t necessarily productive. The term was coined by Katherine Milkman an operations and information management professor at Wharton Business School. Interviewed on the Freakonomics podcast Milkman suggested some of these consumption complementarities:

“So what if you only let yourself get a pedicure while catching up on overdue emails for work? Or what if you only let yourself listen to your favourite CDs while catching up on household chores. Or only let yourself go to your very favourite restaurant whose hamburgers you crave while spending time with a difficult relative who you should see more of.”

This type of strategy could be applied to losing weight. In my own case I could do with losing around ten kilos. Maybe I should do a bit more exercise. It’s funny but I don’t drink coca cola. I’m not a fan of junk food. My problem is quantity, and I do eat too fast. I wish I could get nearer to Pollan’s advice. My intellectual brain understands that less is more, but my emotional brain has other ideas.

Marjorie Dawes

November 22, 2015

Here is Little Britain’s Marjorie Dawes, who runs a branch of a weight loss group called ‘Fat Fighters’. Despite appearing to weigh 100 kg herself, she is always making fun of the members.

When social interventions go wrong

November 15, 2015

The other day I was listening to the Start the Week podcast, when I heard them talking about an Oscar-winning documentary I remembered seeing in the late 1970s. In one chapter of his new book, Black Box Thinking: The Surprising Truth About Success Matthew Syed analyses Scared Straight, a 1978 documentary which showed a group of seventeen troubled teenagers with convictions for shoplifting, theft, assault possession and selling of drugs, to Rahway Penitentiary in New Jersey. There they would meet convicts who had been sentenced to at least 25 years for crimes such as homicide, rape, armed robbery, and drug dealing. The crime-reduction programme “Scared Straight”, which had been an idea of the prisoners themselves, had already been running for two years when the documentary was made. The idea was to shock the kids into giving up their criminal ways by giving them a glimpse of what life was really like inside a maximum security prison.

I remember being impressed by the programme. Directed by Arnold Shapiro and narrated by Peter Falk, the documentary was broadcast uncensored, which was rather surprising. We were just not used to hearing the f-word on TV. The mores of the 1970s were very different from now. There was no Channel 4 in the UK, and I’d never heard of HBO, although it had actually been founded in 1972.

Initially, the teens come across as cocky – they are not going to let themselves be intimidated. But the meeting is designed to intimidate them. Walking through the metal detector at the entrance of the prison, the youngsters experience their first taste of harsh prison life. As well as a lot of swearing, the kids hear tales of murder and rape. There are a number of kids who were picked on by the prisoners. The kids are inside Rahway for just three hours, but it feels much longer. They have seen the reality of prison and are determined never to go back.

In 1979 Scared Straight won the Oscar for best documentary feature at the Academy Awards. There was then a celebratory 20th anniversary programme – Scared Straight! 20 Years Later, fronted by Danny Glover. It revisited the 17 subjects from the original film. As they talked about their new lives, almost all said that the 3-hour visit to Rahway two decades earlier as having turned their lives around. A&E, an American cable and satellite channel, introduced Beyond Scared Straight, a new series, in 2011. It ran for eight seasons.

Here is a government program which actually works. For a relatively small outlay it is possible to get a significant reduction in crime. The “Scared Straight” programme was rolled out to a number of other states. Indeed it was even adopted abroad – Canada, the UK, Australia, and Norway have all tried it out. According to the evidence of those who ran these crime production programmes, between 80% and 90% of people who attended the program went straight. If this were true, we would be looking at an unprecedented success.

Enter James Finckenauer, a professor at the Rutgers School of Criminal Justice, who decided to test Scared Straight. Was the evidence supporting these programmes solid? Digging a little deeper, Finckenauer discovered that it was based on a questionnaire sent to the parents or guardians of children who had visited Rahway. There were four yes-or-no questions:

  1. Have you noticed a marked change in your child’s conduct since their visit to the prison?
  2. Has there been a slight change in their behaviour since their visit to prison?
  3. Do you think another visit is necessary for your son/daughter?
  4. Are there any specific areas you think we might be of some assistance to you, or your son or daughter?

What you may notice is that these questions are rather subjective. What do marked and slight mean? Then, many of the kids who visited Rahway had not been delinquents in the first place. If they had no apparent criminal tendencies, then it is not a great success that they didn’t go on to commit crimes. Moreover, the parents often received the letters within weeks of the visit, far too early to make a solid evaluation.

Another fundamental flaw he unearthed was that only those who responded to the questionnaire were included in the statistics. This seems a rather basic error. Imagine if your kid was mixed up in crime, you probably wouldn’t feel too enthusiastic about replying. You might well have felt embarrassed. This must surely have skewed the results. It reminds me of a TV programme here called Madrileños por el Mundo, which looks at people from Madrid who have gone to live and work abroad. Curiously the people they interview are all incredibly successful. If they are not running the Vienna Opera House, they are working for NASA. You never see the ones who are in badly-paid jobs or who ended up leaving. This is known as selection bias.

Ultimately, you need to know what would have happened if they hadn’t been taken to the prison. They might have done even better. There may have been another reason for them not committing crimes. This is where the randomised control trial comes in. you need to study one group which received the intervention and another that didn’t. This type of rigour generally seems to be missing from this kind of government initiative.

Finckenauer did exactly this and showed that the children who attended Rahway were more likely to commit crimes than those who did not. This is a bit counterintuitive. I watched the documentary and the sequel again on YouTube and it was just so convincing. Why wouldn’t it work? The idea that kids can be turned around with tough love is seductive. But we need to be aware of the danger of panaceas. The causes of juvenile crime are complex and to expect a three-hour visit to prison to be the solution is a bit naïve.  Finckenauer wrote:

The intentions of the inmates were genuine: they really wanted the kids to go straight. But the program was having unintended consequences. The experience of being shouted at seemed to be brutalizing the youngsters. Many seemed to be going out and committing crime just to prove to themselves and their peers that they weren’t really scared.

There is another amazing twist to this story. On January 1, 1982 a 19-year-old called Michele Mika was murdered in her bedroom; she was found with a 20-cm carving knife in her back After killing Mika, the criminal sexually assaulted for several hours. Not until more than 25 years had passed was anyone arrested. It was a 45-year-old Hackensack resident, Angelo Speziale, one of the 17 youngsters from the documentary. He had also appeared in the follow-up programme, where we see him with his wife and three kids. He claimed that the visit to Rahway had transformed his life:

“If I didn’t go to Rahway, I think I would have done hard time. I might not have my family. And my family to me right now is everything; it is the most beautiful experience in the world.”

Speziale, who had a job tiling floors, was caught by pure chance. After being arrested for shoplifting, the place obtained his DNA, which proved to be a match for the DNA of the sperm found in Michele Mika’s body. They had been neighbours in a duplex in the New Jersey city in 1982.

In this case I wouldn’t criticise the documentary. It is true that he did stab his victim. In the prison visit he had been made to read a newspaper article aloud about a prisoner who had been stabbed to death in his cell. You hear a frightened kid reading:

He was stabbed about a dozen times in the neck, chest, head and back. Robinson was pronounced dead on arrival at Rahway General Hospital.”

Angelo Speziale is now back in Rahway prison. The fact that he was responsible for a similar crime four years later may well have been a coincidence. We can’t be guided by one case. The problem with Scared Straight was the overall numbers. It was such a wonderful story, but it was be too good to be true. What you can criticise the show for is perpetuating this myth.

La Marseillaise in Casablanca

November 15, 2015

Vive la France!

One cannot die a nicer death than by breathing hydrocyanic acid gas

November 8, 2015


Haber’s life was the tragedy of the German Jew – the tragedy of unrequited love. Albert Einstein

In times of peace humanity, in times of war the fatherland. Fritz Haber


Louis Pasteur, Joseph Lister, Edward Jenner and Alexander Fleming are all rightly in the pantheon of science for having saved millions of lives. Then we have those unsung heroes. John Enders (measles vaccine), Karl Landsteiner (blood groups, which led to transfusions), Gaston Ramon (diphtheria and tetanus vaccines) and Abel Wolman (chlorination of water) should all be household names. However, there is one man, a bald, moustached chemist, who wore a pince-nez, whose contribution to saving lives dwarfs all of these. There is just one problem – he is considered by many to be a war criminal. Today I am going to tell you the story of this man.

Fritz Haber was born into a well-off Jewish family in Breslau, Prussia (now Wrocław, Poland) on 9th December 1868. His mother, Paula, died during childbirth and his father, Siegfried, was a successful merchant who dealt in dye pigments, paints and pharmaceuticals. His relationship with his father was distant and often problematic; Fritz was actually closer to his step-mother and his half-sisters. In 1886 he went to the University of Heidelberg, where he studied under Robert Bunsen. He also attended the University of Berlin and the University of Karlsruhe, where he met Carl Bosch, a fellow scientist, who would play an important part in his life. After university, Haber came back to Breslau to work at his father’s chemical business. The two did not get along well; they were constantly clashing and Siegfried finally accepted that they could not work well together.

Although Haber was born to a Jewish family, in 1892 he converted to Protestantism. Many Jewish scientists, for whom religion was not particularly important, went down this path. It was a way to help them advance their careers. Clara Immerwahr also converted from Judaism to Protestantism to further her scientific career. A chemist and the first woman Ph.D. at Breslau University She would become Haber’s first wife in 1901. She may have expected to share a full intellectual life with her husband, like the Curies. Alas, it would be very different. Clara Haber became a Hausmütterchen (little domestic matron), sacrificing her career. While Clara’s ambitions were thwarted, Haber thrived.

Haber’s great contribution, in collaboration with Carl Bosch, now an engineer from the chemical company BASF, was to discover a way of synthesising ammonia for fertiliser from nitrogen and hydrogen. The Haber-Bosch process made it possible to create huge amounts of fertiliser. It seemed miraculous, and was described as creating “bread from air“. The fertiliser went on to be used on a large scale, leading to a huge increase in crop yields, doping away with the fear of famine in large parts of the world. Haber would now be regarded as a hero if he had stopped here.

It was six years later that the dark legend of Fritz Haber began. World War I had been going for less than a year. It was 5 p.m. on the afternoon of 22 April 1915, and Haber and his select squad, known as Pionierkommando 36, were dug in along a four-mile front on the German lines during the Second Battle of Ypres. Facing them were French Canadian and Algerian troops. Haber and his scientists had more than 5,000 cylinders of chlorine gas in liquid form at their disposal. The order came to attack. The operators, who were all wearing protective masks opened the valves and released the entire contents within ten minutes. A strong breeze swept a blanket of thick green-yellow gas westward into no man’s land and then over the French trenches. The unprotected soldiers began to cough and vomit blood, their chests heaving as they struggled to breathe. This just made them suck more of the poison down their lungs. Those troops that were not suffocated broke from the trenches and fled, abandoning fifty guns. The German infantry were then able to take the abandoned trenches. By the end of the day 5,000 troops had died and 10,000 more were fighting for their lives in the field medical stations. Modern chemical warfare was born.*

The action was a clear violation of the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907. Despite the success of the attack, Haber was said to have been disillusioned. He hadn’t wanted a mere experiment. He had called for an all-out attack with a far larger volume of gas, to deliver a knock-out blow. He would later complain that if the military had followed his advice and launched a massive attack the Germans would have won the war.

Ten days after the chlorine attack at Ypres Clara committed suicide using her husband’s service pistol. The night before Fritz had celebrated his promotion to captain with a dinner party. The generally accepted theory is Clara could not bear living with a man who had perverted science in this way. But Fritz’s patriotism was more powerful than any moral qualms. It was Hermann, their 13-year old son, who heard the shots and discovered his mother’s corpse. Fritz did not even wait around for the funeral. The next day he was off to the eastern front to disperse his poison gas, leaving his grieving son alone to cope with the loss.

After Germany lost World War I, the Allies sought to bring Haber to trial as a war criminal. But instead Haber was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1918 for his ammonia discovery and he remained an important man in German science for more than a decade. He does not seem to have shown much remorse. He corresponded with the former Kaiser, who was now living in exile in Holland. Wilhelm had in mind the coming rematch with the Allies, and was especially interested in the possibility of the “total gassing of large cities”. Haber continued to defend chemical weapons as a higher form of warfare. It was Haber who provided the quote that I used for the title of this post:

One cannot die a nicer death than by breathing hydrocyanic acid gas.”

He was said to be rather melancholy, one of his friends describing him as seeming to be ‘75 per cent dead’. But this appears to have been because of Germany’s defeat. Under the terms of the Versailles Treaty Germany had to pay 20 billion gold marks by May 1921, and a further 132 billion in subsequent payments. This was apparently two-thirds of the world’s gold reserves. What’s more the Allies had declared the country’s patents, including the Haber-Bosch process, null and void, making it even more difficult to pay off the reparations.

Haber had a plan that would enable Germany to pay off its reparations. He would spend six years trying to extract dissolved gold from the oceans. He believed that a tonne of seawater contained several milligrams of gold. Accompanied by a team of 14 researchers, Haber set sail for New York from Hamburg in July 1923 on the ocean liner Hansa, which had a laboratory to test the waters for gold traces. He did successive voyages in the Caribbean Sea, the Pacific, the China Seas, the Indian Ocean, and the Mediterranean. He also had a research team testing some 5,000 samples of sea water in great secrecy in Berlin. Their conclusion that the actual concentration of gold per tonne was 0.008 milligrams, a thousandth of the original estimates, put paid to any possible commercial exploitation.

His other great project was more successful, an insecticide known as Zyklon A. A German chemical company, Degesch, tweaked his formula before WWII to produce an efficient second generation of the gas called Zyklon B. Within a few years the Nazis were gassing millions of Jews, including relatives of Haber, with Zyklon B.

Fritz Haber died in 1934 at the age of 65. The Nazis were in power and had no need for Jewish scientists. Although Haber’s war service exempted him from dismissal in 1933, he chose to resign his directorship. Having been offered the directorship at the Sieff Research Institute in Mandatory Palestine, he was on his way to the Middle East when he died of heart failure, mid-journey, while staying at a Basel hotel. It is in this Swiss city where you can find his grave. Shortly before passing away he asked that the ashes of his first wife Clara be placed in his grave. His wishes were respected.

What can we say about his legacy? The number of people he saved from starvation far exceeds the number of soldiers whose breath he took away. It has been claimed that as many as two out of five humans on the planet today owe their existence to the discoveries made by this brilliant German chemist. Haber’s process is one of the reasons why there are now seven billion people on the planet. Science writer Sam Kean argues that Haber cared little about fertilizers, and that what he was looking for was cheap ammonia to help Germany build nitrogen explosives. Be that as it may, it is impossible to deny Haber’s scientific contribution. Nevertheless, it is a cautionary tale of the dangers of blind patriotism and the power of science to do great good, but also great evil.


* According to Wikipedia: By the end of the war a total of 50,965 tons of pulmonary, lachrymatory, and vesicant agents had bee4n deployed by both sides, including chlorine, phosgene, and the infamous mustard gas. Some 1.3 million casualties were directly caused by chemical warfare agents during the four years of conflict. Of these, an estimated 100,000-260,000 casualties were civilians.

Norman Borlaug, an unsung hero

November 8, 2015

Norman Ernest Borlaug is another unsung scientific hero, who has been called “the father of the Green Revolution” and “The Man Who Saved A Billion Lives“. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 in recognition of his contributions to world peace through increasing food supply.

Invasion of the resurrectionists

November 1, 2015

“Father,’ said young Jerry, “what’s a Resurrection-Man?”… “Well,” returned Mr Cruncher… “he’s a tradesman.” “What’s his goods, father?” asked the lively boy. “His goods… is a branch of Scientific goods.” Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities


The taboo against desecrating the bodies of the dead goes back millennia; it was prohibited by both ancient Greek and Roman religions. The Christian church banned all human dissection until the 14th century; anatomical research was limited to the dissection of animals. But, between 1275 and 1326 Mondino de Luzzi, “Mundinus”, the Italian physician, anatomist, and professor of surgery carried out the first systematic human dissections in more than 1500 years, in his native town of Bologna. In England anatomical research on human cadavers was not legalised until 1540, when Henry VIII gave patronage to the Company of Barber-Surgeons*, allowing them access to four executed felons each year. These criminals were deemed to have forfeited their souls.

But it is in the 18th Century following century that our story starts to get really interesting. Some of the great discoveries of medical history were to take place. In 1747 James Lind publishes his Treatise of the Scurvy stating that citrus fruits prevent scurvy. In 1763 Claudius Aymand performed the first successful appendectomy. The most celebrated breakthrough, though, came in 1796 from Edward Jenner, who developed the process of vaccination for smallpox, the first vaccine for any disease. There were also important advances in dental surgery, obstetrics, and the treatment and detection of venereal disease. But there was a dark side to this progress.

Britain’s population was booming in the 1700s, especially in the major cities. With overcrowding came disease, and a pressing need for trained medics. Consequently, a host of private medical schools sprang up to teach students every aspect of medicine; the most famous was William Hunter’s school in Great Windmill Street, which opened in 1767.

The Company of Barber Surgeons simply wasn’t up to the job of training surgeons. So the Company of Surgeons** was founded in 1745. Under the provisions of the Murder Act of 1752 “every murderer shall, after execution, either be dissected or hung in chains.” The company was granted rights to the bodies of all executed murderers for use in its public anatomy lectures. But even though they were supported by the common law, anatomists sometimes found it difficult to actually collect the corpses. In those days the death penalty was used for a wide range of crimes. This created resentment among the population, and crowds would riot in order to prevent the cadavers of criminals being taken away for experimentation. Nevertheless, between 1752 and 1796, when the Surgeons’ Company moved to Lincoln’s Inn Fields, over one hundred bodies were dissected at Surgeons’ Hall, near the Old Bailey.

But, thanks to the increasing demand and a significant drop in the number of executions, lectures could only be delivered sporadically. And those that went head became more of a morbid public spectacle than effective practical instruction for aspiring surgeons to hone their anatomical skills.

Given the shortfall, local authorities tried to remedy the situation. Edinburgh, for example, allowed anatomists to dissect corpses “found dead in the streets, and the bodies of such as die violent deaths … who shall have nobody to own them“. Suicide victims, stillborn babies and the unclaimed bodies of abandoned children provided a partial solution.

For a steady supply of fresh corpses doctors and schools would increasingly turn to grave robbers, known as “Resurrectionists”, “Sack ‘em up” men” or “Body Snatchers”. These shady underworld characters would deliver their newly exhumed “goods” under the cover of darkness. It was indeed a thriving trade, with fresh bodies fetching as much as four guineas and punishment being limited to a fine rather than imprisonment or deportation. Winter was the most propitious time .the cold slowed putrefaction and the anatomy classes were in session.

In 1728 the anonymous author of a pamphlet titled “A View of London and Westminster” noted that the Corporation of Corpse Stealers “support themselves and Families very comfortably; and that no-one should be surprised at the Nature of Such a Society, the late Resurrectionists in St Saviours, St Giles’s and St Pancras’ Churchyards, are memorable Instances of this laudable Profession.”

The Irish writer Laurence Sterne, author of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, was one illustrious victim. Sterne died of tuberculosis in his London lodgings at 41 Old Bond Street on 18 March, at the age of 54. Being insolvent at the time, he was buried in the churchyard of St George’s, Hanover Square in a pauper’s grave. These graves were easy pickings for the resurrectionists, and a few days later his body was stolen by grave robbers and turned up on a dissection table. Only by chance was he recognized by the surgeon, Charles Collignon, who discreetly reinterred it back in St George’s.

Dissection was seen as a fate worse than death by ordinary folk. Various methods were tried to thwart the resurrectionists, such as having guards or relatives stand vigil by the grave. Another was to employ metal coffins, such as the patent coffin invented by Edward Bridgman in 1781. This iron coffin had spring catches hidden on the inside of the lid, which were configured in such a way that made it impossible to pry off the lid with a crowbar. The resurrection-proof coffin was a sensation and was commemorated in this ditty by Charles Dibden dedicated to Bridgman, this “prince of coffin makers”:

Resurrection men, your fate deplore,

Retire with sore vexation,

Your mystery’s gone, your art’s no more,

No more your occupation;

Surgeons, no more shall ye ransack

The grave, with feelings callous,

Tho’ on the Old Bailey turn’d your back,

Your only hopes the gallows.

Despite public outrage the authorities would for the most part, turn a blind eye. A 1788 court decision ruled that a corpse not property, and thus could not be owned or stolen. Only if property, such as clothes or a shroud was removed was the robber a thief. One   surgeon, Andrew Marshall, was caught red-handed with a hamper containing the bodies of two children, and he went unpunished. Another, Thomas Young, was fined just £10 when he was found in possession of a recently deceased inmate from a workhouse. This grisly trade only came to an end after the sensational trails in the late 1820s of Burke and Hare. They were indeed body snatchers, but when supply was insufficient, they resorted to murder. In over a period of about ten months in 1828 the two Irish immigrants committed a series of 16 murders, selling the corpses of their victims to Doctor Robert Knox as dissection material for his anatomy lectures.

Before passing the death sentence in December 1828, the Lord Justice-Clerk, David Boyle, addressed Burke with the words:

“… your sentence shall be put in execution in the usual way, but accompanied with the statutory attendant of the punishment of the crime of murder, viz. – that your body should be publicly dissected and anatomized. And I trust, that if it is ever customary to preserve skeletons, yours will be preserved, in order that posterity may keep in remembrance of your atrocious crimes.”

Burke was hanged at 8.15 am on 28 January 1829. Despite the torrential rain, a crowd, said to number between 20,000 and 25,000, turned up for the spectacle. On the following day Burke was publicly dissected in the anatomy theatre of Edinburgh University’s Old College.

Burke and Hare even had their imitators; The London Burkers were a group of body snatchers operating in London, who achieved notoriety in 1831 for murdering victims to sell to anatomists. They would lure their victims to their place in Bethnal Green, where after drugging them they proceeded to kill them. To burke actually came into the English language; it means to execute someone by suffocation so as to leave the body intact and suitable for dissection.

These two cases highlighted the crisis in medical education led to the subsequent passing of the Anatomy Act 1832, which expanded the legal supply of medical cadavers to eliminate the economic incentive for grave robbers. The Act stated that a person having lawful possession of a body could permit it to undergo anatomical examination provided that no relative objected. It also ended anatomising as part of the death sentence for murder.

About the law, an editorial in The Lancet stated:

Burke and Hare … it is said, are the real authors of the measure, and that which would never have been sanctioned by the deliberate wisdom of parliament, is about to be extorted from its fears … It would have been well if this fear had been manifested and acted upon before sixteen human beings had fallen victims to the supineness of the Government and the Legislature. It required no extraordinary sagacity, to foresee that the worst consequences must inevitably result from the system of traffic between resurrectionists and anatomists, which the executive government has so long suffered to exist. Government is already in a great degree, responsible for the crime which it has fostered by its negligence, and even encouraged by a system of forbearance.”

There was criticism too. Opposing an earlier, unsuccessful bill, William Cobbett declared:

“… they tell us it was necessary for the purposes of science. Science? Why, who is science for? Not for poor people. Then if it be necessary for the purposes of science, let them have the bodies of the rich, for whose benefit science is cultivated.”

It is difficult to see the ethical side of bodysnatching, but the corpses would be vital in the fledgling field of 18th century surgery. There is also an important class element to the dissections – 99% of the bodies cut up belonged to the poor. It may be uncomfortable to admit it but modern medicine owes a massive debt to those dark times. Like it or not, today’s medical science was founded on the grisly trade of the resurrection men and the surgeons who bought the bodies of the destitute from them.

*From Wikipedia: “The barber surgeon was one of the most common medical practitioners of medieval Europe – generally charged with looking after soldiers during or after a battle. In this era, surgery was not generally conducted by physicians, but by barbers (who of course had a sharp-bladed razor as an indispensable tool of their profession).”


** In 1800 the Company was finally granted a Royal Charter and the Royal College of Surgeons in London was born.

The Hunterian Museum

November 1, 2015

If you happen to be in London I can strongly recommend The Hunterian Museum. Located at 35-43 Lincolns Inn Fields, at the home of the Royal College of Surgeons, it houses one of the oldest collections of anatomical, pathological and zoological specimens in the UK. The items were originally assembled by the surgeon and anatomist, John Hunter. Exhibits include a collection of surgical instruments dating from the seventeenth century,  a silver prosthetic nose attached to a pair of glasses, Winston Churchill’s dentures and the skeleton of the 7ft 7in tall ‘Irish giant’ Charles Byrne. The latter, for which Hunter paid £500, is controversial, as Byrne, who died in 1793, had wished to be buried at sea. Entrance is free, but it’s not for the squeamish.