Disease and Dissection at Worcester Royal Infirmary

During March 2009 and June 2010, archaeologists who were excavating a site within the grounds of the former Worcester Royal Infirmary came across a number of pits that contained a fascinating assemblage of what we now realise is hospital waste. The pits contained 1800 fragments of human bone, most likely the waste from amputations of diseased or damaged limbs, post mortem of individuals to ascertain a cause of death and dissections carried out in the training of medical students and surgeons.

These remains date from the 18th and 19th centuries and are directly associated with the Infirmary. A discovery of this kind is very rare and is both locally and nationally important. The collection dates from a period when very few records survive at the infirmary and it offers us a fascinating insight into the diseases and traumas treated at the hospital and the surgery and medical training that was undertaken there.

These human remains carry evidence of the diseases and traumas that affected the citizens of Worcester in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. A report still exists that gives details of the cases attended by Sir Charles Hastings, one of the physicians at WRI (and later the founder of the British Medical Association). Diseases such as syphilis and tuberculosis were treated as well as less specific conditions such as diseased lungs and inflamed legs. Evidence of many of these illnesses survive on the bones. Some hereditary conditions are represented such as talipes (club foot), as well as metabolic illnesses such as rickets which resulted from a lack of Vitamin D.

It is highly likely that some, if not the majority, of bones in this assemblage are the results of therapeutic amputations. These amputations were carried out due to disease or trauma to the limb and prior to the introduction of anaesthetics in 1846 would have been carried out as quickly as possible. Experimentation and advances in amputation did occur at Worcester Royal Infirmary. Henry Carden, a surgeon at the hospital from 1838 to 1872, developed his new transcondylar single-flap technique which achieved a survival rate of 78% amongst his patients. There is amputated bone within this collection that is the result of this new technique.

The head of a femur with a metal plate and pin for attachment to a teaching skeleton.

Autopsy and dissection were carried out at the Infirmary. An autopsy was carried out to establish a cause of death and dissection was part of the training of surgeons and physicians. It is still unclear whether this collection belongs to the period just before or just after the 1832 Anatomy Act. Prior to the Act, some bodies (those who had been found guilty of murder) were available for dissection but demand far outstripped supply. Grave robbing, although illegal, offered a regular supply of bodies for hospital training. The Anatomy Act of 1832 was written in response to a growing unease with this practice as well as the medical profession’s treatment of dead bodies in general. The new act meant that the unclaimed remains of those who had died, for instance, whilst in the workhouse could now be used for dissection.

 It is unclear whether these remains from Worcester fell foul of the law. Amputations and teaching skeletons could legally be disposed of as waste but many of the remains are not diseased or damaged and they may have been dissected. If these remains date to the period before the 1832 Anatomy Act, they may well have been gained from questionable sources. The hope is that further analysis will provide more answers.

A small selection of these fascinating bones are on display at Worcester City Art Gallery and Museum until 31st October 2012.

The archaeological work was carried out by Cathy Patrick at  CGMS Consulting http://www.cgms.co.uk/page/Archaeology_43/1.html and Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service http://www.worcestershire.gov.uk/cms/archaeology.aspx 

The Ostelogical report (where this information comes from) was written by Gaynor Western and Tania Kausmally. http://www.ossafreelance.co.uk/ 

More of Gaynor Western’s work is available here http://www.ossafreelance.co.uk/PastProjects/BABAO%20Poster%20WRI%20Final.pdf

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2 thoughts on “Disease and Dissection at Worcester Royal Infirmary

  1. The osteology report on this collection is incredibly fascinating …and the largest collection of bones found on a provincial infirmary site so I’m told. Thanks for posting 🙂

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