The bodies of fetuses and babies were dissected more commonly than believed, as they were prized by British scientists of the 18th and 19th centuries, according to a study published on June 30 in the Journal of Anatomy. These infant bodies were a source of knowledge about growth and development.

Scientists from these centuries kept these bodies in anatomical museums. Their small sizes made them ideal teaching aids for some anatomical preparations in teaching, especially for lessons about the nervous and circulatory systems.

Majority of the cadavers were stillborn babies of very poor mothers, babies who died because of infectious illnesses and those who died in charitable hospitals. Babies killed by unmarried mothers, a decision to avoid the discrimination against single parenthood, were also used by anatomists.

infant bodies

Dissected fetal skull dating from the 1800s, originally held in the University of Cambridge Anatomy Museum. Credit: Jenna Dittmar

Apparently, the baby cadavers were also a source of profit to poor women during that time. Mothers did not have to worry about funeral costs. The money they received was also used to feed other family members.

These young cadavers were dissected differently from adult ones. As the research team’s investigation on the skeletal collection dating from 1768 to 1913 in Cambridge’s Department of Anatomy, anatomists kept the skulls of children and fetuses intact. By comparison, the anatomists normally performed craniotomy on adult bodies.

Moreover, skeletons of adult cadavers were buried after dissection but anatomists kept the skeletal remains of babies and fetuses, so they can still use it to teach and further their study. According to researcher Jenna Dittmar from Cambridge’s Department of Archaeology and Anthropology, anatomists took several measures to keep the young cadavers undamaged and well preserved.

Executed criminals were thought to be the only source of cadavers. However, this supply barely covered the demand so the black markets thrived, selling each cadaver by the inch. Still, they did not sell babies because their tiny bodies were not profitable.

To solve the black market problem, the Anatomy Act of 1832 was introduced. This allowed the donation of unclaimed poor dead people. This includes babies who died from tuberculosis, cholera and other common infectious diseases.

The availability of infant bodies were only limited by changes in the law and other socio-cultural reasons. The spread of diseases also drastically reduced the number of these cadavers.