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The taken for granted and professional practice
Anyone looking for an explanation of the scandal at Alder Hey in general rather than specific or psychological terms could do worse than turn to history. Not just to the last few years that is, but to half a millennium of Western medical tradition. Pathologists and others will doubtless draw relevant conclusions from the episode and perhaps more guidelines will be added to those already in place. For the historian one lesson seems strikingly clear. The episode is a vivid demonstration of how what are eventually seen as ordinary and acceptable practices are gradually built over a long period of time during which their moral dimensions become completely hidden. It takes a magnified example of the ordinary for the substructure of the taken for granted to be revealed.
There are hints that the practice of human anatomy occurred very occasionally in antiquity and we can be certain that it infrequently did in the Middle Ages. There is no record, however, of the retention of parts for educational or other purposes. It was in the Renaissance that anatomy was crowned the queen of the medical sciences and it was from then that the anatomists began to retain skeletons and organs for their private collections and those of the institutions that they served. In Britain, corpses available for dissection were those of judicially hanged felons. Dissection was regarded as the last punishment that could be inflicted on a criminal. Hanged criminals largely came from the poorer classes and, as Ruth Richardson has shown, popular attitudes to, and rituals surrounding, the dead body comprised a strange mixture of Christianity and ancient folk beliefs.1 In any event this combination served …