"Hi, I'm Anne Greene. I was resurrected on the anatomy table in 1650. I'm going to guide you through the story of anatomy at Oxford."

What is anatomy?

Anatomy is a foundational subject in medicine. It is defined by the Oxford English dictionary as “The study of the structure of living organisms, especially of their internal parts by means of dissection and microscopical examination.”

While that definition seems quite neutral, the history of Anatomy was anything but! It developed alongside systems of exploitation, medical power, and disputes over the human body.

Bennett, Rachel E. Capital Punishment and the Criminal Corpse in Scotland, 1740-1834. Cham, Switzerland, 2018. Palgrave Historical Studies in the Criminal Corpse and Its Afterlife.

Richardson, Ruth. Death, Dissection and the Destitute. 2nd Ed. with a New Afterword. ed. London: Phoenix, 2001.


Image credit for the section above:

Oxford, Bodleian Library Tickets Lectures (8):

By Leonardo da Vinci -, Public Domain,

By Amada44 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,


anatomy at oxford timeline handlettering

Explore the timeline below to learn about the history of Anatomy in Oxford.



Anatomy becomes part of the medical curriculum Asylum opens

Students during the 16th century at Oxford University were required to study for at least six years to obtain a license or degree to practice medicine. However, anatomy was not a major part of their early medical education. Instead,
they focused on Galenic theory and reading texts rather than practicing.

This changed after 1549, when new regulations required all students to witness two dissections during their medical studies.

bloody amputation saw


Tomlins Reader in Anatomy Established

In 1624, a new lectureship in Anatomy, the Tomlins Reader, was established at the University of Oxford. The Reader was required by statute to give a course of lectures in Anatomy and perform one dissection annually for students to watch.

However, the sourcing of bodies for dissection was very difficult at this time. To help the school gain access to bodies for dissection, King James granted Oxford University Anatomists special permission to dissect the body of any individual who was executed within 21 miles of Oxford city.

In this way, corporal punishment became directly tied to medical training in the city. I wonder how the townspeople felt about this development?



Anatomy becomes an Experimental Scientific Discipline

In the 1600s, scientific study expanded across the university. For those with an interest in hands-on empirical study, Anatomy became an important subject. The medical dissections of this period led to numerous discoveries about the human form, shaping our fundamental understanding of the body.

Oxford served as a connecting ground and laboratory for many scientists we remember from this period, including Thomas Willis, the Sedleian Professor of Natural Philosophy, William Harvey, William Petty, Nathaniel Highmore, Thomas Wharton, Ralph Bathurst, among others.

Willis is known as ‘The Father of Neurology’ and the Circle of Willis in the brain is named after him.

Naming bits of the body after men who identified them reminds me of how Europeans named things they supposedly ‘discovered’ in other parts of the world at the time…
t willis cerebri anatome

The base of the brain with the Circle of Willis, drawn by Christopher Wren for Willis’s Cerebri anatome, 1664. Source: Wellcome Collection.



The Story of
Anne Greene

[Trigger warning – violence]

In 1650, I was working as a domestic servant in the house of a local justice of the peace. I became pregnant by his grandson and miscarried the fetus at 17 weeks.

The lord of the house was a cruel man who wanted to cover up the pregnancy. At the time, women like me had little power and were easily prosecuted through the infanticide law of 1624. Under this law, a woman was presumed to be guilty of murder when they miscarried, unless she could prove otherwise, and I was sentenced to death by hanging.

Although I don’t remember most of it, I was told I hung for a very long time without dying. Some of my friends took pity on me and attempted to hurry the torment by pulling on my feet. Eventually, they pulled me down and the guards, I’m told, administered a few strikes at my head to ensure I was truly gone – but they certainly underestimated me! I was still alive when they declared me dead and sent me off to be dissected by the university anatomists.

Although the University was granted ownership of all bodies from criminal executions, not all executions or dissections were successful in the past! I survived my execution and came back to life on the anatomy table.

The next day, when I was brought out for dissection, I was still breathing and had a pulse. The physicians acted quickly, working to bring my cold body temperature back to normal. I was eventually placed under warm blankets with another woman who kept me warm until I regained full consciousness.

My revival was considered an act of God, and after a petition by the physicians I was allowed to live – despite the efforts by my former employer to request I undergo another execution! News of my miraculous revival drew in crowds of locals, who happily paid a small fee to see me alive and recovered. I used this money to petition for a pardon and eventually to start a new life! [2]

I became quite famous at the time – my story was published in several pamphlets and over 25 poems in various languages

[1] Susan C. Staub, "Surveilling the Secrets of the Female Body," in The Female Body in Medicine and Literature, edited by Andrew Mangham and Greta Depledge, pp. 51-68. (Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press, 2011), esp.p53-54.

[2] Caoimhghin S Breathnach and John B Moynihan, “Intensive care 1650: the revival of Anne Greene (c. 1628–59) Journal of Medical Biography no. 1, 17 (2009): 35-38.

J. Trevor Hughes, “Miraculous deliverance of Anne Green: an Oxford case of resuscitation in the seventeenth century. British Medical Journal (Clinical Research Edition) 285 (1982): 1792-1793.

Primary Sources:



The Old Ashmolean Museum Opens

Throughout most of the 17th century, dissections were haphazard and often occurred when someone had been executed at Oxford Castle. The body would then be sent to one of the anatomists at the University, especially Thomas Willis, and a public dissection would take place within the next few days. The location of these dissections varied widely, sometimes happening within the main library quad, or at the house of one of the scholars involved in the dissection.

This changed in 1683 when the old Ashmolean Museum opened on Broad street. This museum was the first purpose-built anatomical theater in Britain. Today, it serves as the History of Science Museum.

Despite the improvement in teaching spaces, it was still very difficult for medical students to obtain bodies for dissection.

John Bellars wrote in his 1714 Essay Towards the Improvement of Physick: "it is not easy for the students to get a body to dissect at Oxford, for the mob being so mutinous to prevent their having one." [3]

[3] M.C. Buer, Health, Wealth and the Population in the Early Days of the Industrial Revolution (London, UK: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1926), p127.

pd 47 1997 ce

The Fitzwilliam Museum (2022) "The Doorway of the old Ashmolean Museum, Oxford" Web page available at: Accessed: 2022-12-09 20:01:55



The Murder Act
of 1752

Accessing cadavers was a problem for medical schools all over Britain and the demand for bodies always outstripped the supply. Pressure was placed on parliament to pass laws that would allow anatomists greater access to cadavers for medical training.

The first law to do this was the Murder Act of 1752. which stipulated that the punishment for a criminal convicted of murder was execution, followed by public dissection and the denial of a proper Christian burial.

While this law increased the supply of bodies to physicians and medical students, it also directly tied medical learning to state control and punishment. No wonder people distrusted doctors!

Yet this Act was still not enough to increase the supply of cadavers to an effective level. Anatomists needed steady access to bodies annually and the use of convicted felons simply did not bring in enough supply



School of Anatomy opens at Christ Church College

Anatomical education at the University continued to grow as an important part of medical studies over the course of the 18th century. In 1767, the first full time lectureship in Anatomy was appointed, and the following year a new School of Anatomy was opened at Christ Church College.

christ church college

Drawing of the inside layout of the Lecture Theatre, School of Anatomy, Christ Church College. Source: Christ Church College Archives.

This school boasted a large lecture theatre for staging dissections, with a burial ground nearby.

The majority of cadavers dissected at this time were sourced from executions. As a Christian burial was not initially required for executed criminals, the remains were not well buried and the school had to run a stream through the burial ground "to remove all offensive smell" from the decay. This stream can still be seen today at the entrance to Christ Church Meadow.
excerpt from execution of giles covington

Excerpt from report on the execution of Giles Covington. Oxford Journal (12 March, 1791): p3. Source: The British Newspaper Archive

anatomy oxford journal

“Anatomy,” Oxford Journal (30 March, 1776): p2. Source: The British Newspaper Archive

Because anatomical dissections were so difficult to come across, students and would-be physicians sometimes looked elsewhere for practice with both dissection and surgery on cadavers. Some private lecturers in the county offered lessons in anatomy run directly out of their residences, guaranteeing access to human remains for all those who signed up to a course. This 1776 advertisement from the Oxford Journal shows that medical education could be secured outside the university halls.


Radcliffe Infirmary

At the turn of the century, there was a general absence of laboratories and practical opportunities for scientific study within the University as a whole. One of the few hands-on laboratories was the Anatomy School, and even this was provided through Christ Church College, rather than the University directly. The opening of the Radcliffe Infirmary was a major turning point in medical education at Oxford. It provided hands-on clinical experience for aspiring physicians.

Students would spend 2 terms (of their 16 total) gaining practical observational and clinical understanding at the Infirmary. Nonetheless, this did not directly transfer over to satisfactory training in anatomy. The lack of cadavers in a smaller city like Oxford was so inhibiting that students often had to travel to London to complete their anatomy requirements.



The Judgement of Death Act

In 1823, the Judgement of Death Act was passed. The act made the death penalty a discretionary sentence on many crimes. While this was welcome news to many people, it caused much concern in medical schools across the country. As dissections
were technically only allowed on executed prisoners, there was a sudden massive demand for bodies across the country as the supply of remains from the prisons dropped.

Anatomists paid a high price for cadavers and body snatching developed into a lucrative trade. Grave-robbers would stake out burial grounds and dig up bodies as soon as they had been buried. Yet fresh cadavers were still hard to come
by, and many people actively guarded their loved ones after a burial, even fighting back when grave robbers, called ‘resurrectionists’, attempted to dig them up.

Some body snatchers turned to murder in order to procure fresh bodies. The most famous case of this occurred in Scotland, where two men named target="_blank">William Burke and William Hare, carried out a series of murders in order to supply an anatomist with fresh bodies.

These anatomy murderers prayed on the most vulnerable people in society. Their victims were the poor and destitute, often female or young disabled children.

Philp, Janet. "Bodies and Bureaucracy: The Demise of the Body Snatchers in 19th Century Britain." Anatomical Record (Hoboken, N.J.: 2007) 305, no. 4 (2022): 827-37.

Burrell, Sean, and Gill, Geoffrey. "The Liverpool Cholera Epidemic of 1832 and Anatomical Dissection—Medical Mistrust and Civil Unrest." Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 60, no. 4 (2005): 478-98.



The Anatomy Act

Anatomists and physicians placed pressure on parliament to come up with a solution and the Anatomy Act was passed in 1832. This Act was meant to help alleviate the steep demand for cadavers within the medical schools by opening new sources for obtaining human remains. It also protected anatomists from potential legal and professional issues due to being associated with body-snatchers and murderers.

Looking back, it seems that legislation helped physicians and medical men to commodify poor people as a resource for furthering their own interests

The Anatomy Act replaced the Murder Act of 1752 and expanded the legal ability of anatomists to purchase bodies for dissection from a wide range of public institutions, including workhouses, hospitals, asylums, and prisons. If a body was left unclaimed by friends or family, the institution had the option of selling it to an anatomist for dissection, on the condition that the anatomist gave the person a proper Cristian burial after dissection. Sometimes, if a family was too poor to cover the costs of a burial, they could sell the body to an anatomist to help cover the costs. Historian Ruth Richardson argues that together, the Anatomy Act and the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 helped to criminalize poverty in Britain.

Although legislation theoretically opened the way for sourcing a much higher number of cadavers, there was a general reluctance from poor families and workhouses to give up their dead for dissection. Instead, university hospitals became the primary supplier of remains for dissection, and medical schools were able to gain a steady supply of cadavers for teaching purposes from the hospital morgue. This led to the rise of hospital schools, especially in London, as leading centres of medical education and eliminated smaller (and less expensive) private schools from the medical teaching landscape. In Oxford, while the Radcliffe Infirmary supplied some cadavers for dissection within the School of Anatomy, there was still a severe lack of remains for education. Some historians speculate that the Anatomy school completely ceased dissections between 1841-1861 due to the lack of cadavers available. Instead, the school invested in wax models for teaching.

Ruth Richardson, Death, Dissection and the Destitute (London: Penguin, 1989)..

Fiona Hutton, “The Working of the 1832 Anatomy Act in Oxford and Manchester,” Family & Community History 9, no. 2 (2006): 125-139.



The Medical Act

The demand for bodies grew even further after the passage of the 1858 Medical Act. Under this legislation, all medical students were required to study human anatomy for two years before being granted a license to practice medicine or surgery in Britain.

Thus, access to a supply of human remains became an important consideration for the reputation of medical programs at different universities, especially in London and Edinburgh.

[Illustration of some sort here? Maybe an Oxford and a Cambridge don both with a scalpel?]

Oxford, on the other hand, consistently struggled to do this. While it had a strong clinical training program for students through the Radcliffe Infirmary, it often faced a deficient supply of cadavers. Only the wealthiest students could afford to secure their own cadavers to supplement their training and many students left the university to continue their anatomical training in London between 1832-1885.

This situation did not improve over time. By the end of the 19th century, Oxford was only able to secure on average 500 bodies for dissection annually, compared to Cambridge, which secured over 2,000. The lack of cadavers – combined with a lack of investment in science - had wide-ranging and long-lasting impacts on the medical school.



Linacre Professorship of Anatomy and Physiology established

This new professorship brought the study of physiology into the fold of medical studies in the university, with animal anatomy and physiology becoming a broadening subject of both teaching and research. In 1877, the Linacre Chair was divided into simply anatomy and a new physiology professorship created separately: the Waynflete Professorship in Physiology (attached to Magdelan College



The Lost Medical School Controversy

In 1878, a controversy occurred in the medical profession when Oxford was accused of providing a sub-par education to its medical students. One editor of the British Medical Journal claimed 138 medical students were unqualified upon
leaving Oxford that year, with a severe deficiency in anatomical training.

The view that medical training at Oxford was inferior to other universities persisted for a long time, well into the 20th century.

I wonder if the demand for bodies ever effected the proper investigation into a person’s death? When the pressure is so high to source cadavers, it creates a strong incentive for bodies to be handed over to the anatomists rather than
a coroner...


Disputed Cadavers

The economy of body supply in late 19th century Oxford was complicated and expensive due to several factors. There was a wide-ranging and mixed welfare system which provided assistance for medical care (for instance, the Radcliffe Infirmary treated the poor for free) and various support systems provided charitable assistance in burying the dead. This meant anatomists needed to source cadavers from outside the city, a costly endeavor that risked unwanted publicity and potential decomposition when bodies were transported by train.

The system of body supply was reliant on the compliance and payment of several middlemen, as various attendants, coroners, hospital porters, workhouse staff, undertakers, and bereaved families were involved in the facilitation of body purchase by anatomists and medical schools.

Historian Elizabeth Hurren has demonstrated that this was a delicate system and could easily be disrupted. One dispute with the local city coroner Edward Law Hussey, prevented the transfer of several bodies to Oxford University anatomists. Hussey was concerned that the financial incentive for selling cadavers led to improper investigations into the cause of death by hospital physicians and he made a mission of blocking the trade in bodies from the patients at the Radcliffe Infirmary to the Anatomy school.

Hurren, Elizabeth T. "Whose Body Is It Anyway? Trading the Dead Poor, Coroner's Disputes, and the Business of Anatomy at Oxford University, 1885-1929." Bulletin of the History of Medicine 82.4 (2008): 775-819.



Anatomy Department Recognised

The Anatomy department gains an official building (on the east-end of the Pitt Rivers Museum) and the department is officially recognised in the University of Oxford. The building still stands today and is the site of a number of medical
research studies.


As the demand for effective medical care increased throughout history, it became increasingly necessary for physicians to gain a detailed understanding of the human body during their medical

education. This demand, coupled with a general rise in the number of students enrolling within medical schools across Britain, led Anatomy to become an important foundational subject within medical teaching. One important consequence
was massive demand for human cadavers, so that physicians could gain hands on training in dissection of the human body.

The demand for cadavers and consistent difficulties with obtaining them ultimately shaped the growth and reputation of medical schools. Medical schools in London rose in prominence due to their association with hospitals and the
easy supply of cadavers from the hospital mortuary, while medical schools without such access, especially private medical schools, eventually disappeared from the national medical landscape.

Throughout history, physicians and anatomists have relied on intrinsic divisions within society to gain access to human bodies for dissection. The development of medical knowledge and education was directly facilitated by legislation
that married state power and punishment to control over the bodies of the poor and criminalised. This raises questions about the supposed objectivity of anatomical knowledge and training in the past – and the present.

There were other lasting effects that created a bias in medical science. Because of how they were sourced, cadavers that were obtained for dissection were predominantly older and generally male. Thus, physicians and doctors were
usually trained on male corpses. This contributed to a systemic lack of knowledge and experience with female and child anatomy and the tendency to use the male body as default in medical studies.

Sometimes bias in our knowledge systems can be hidden, but they still shape how knowledge is produced, and who knowledge is produced for. Have things really changed much today?

Learn more about the history of Anatomy on a
History of Medicine Walking Tour run by Uncomfortable Oxford.