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Understanding the body

Body - anatomy

Educational objective

Students will discover the source of much of our knowledge of human anatomy. They will learn that in the past useful knowledge was sometimes acquired through means which may not be acceptable to us today (or may not have been even at the time).


Classroom activity - news bulletin: body-snatcher

Ask students to visit the Brought to Life website and research how dead bodies were used, looking at body-snatchers, cadavers, dissection, plus the stories of William Burke and William Hare, and Robert Knox.

Ask students to write a news bulletin covering the arrest of Burke and Hare on the charge of body-snatching. The news report should open with an attention-grabbing statement and then give a brief but very clear account of the crime committed, who the likely victims were, the predicted outcome of the trial and the punishment the men will face if found guilty.

Students might also create quotes and comments from key figures involved in the case, e.g. ‘When questioned by reporters, Dr Knox claimed not to have noticed that Burke and Hare’s cadavers were considerably fresher than those offered for sale by their rivals.’

Extension activities

Students could write additional news features for other figures in the story and present their bulletins to the class as if reading the news on television.

Curriculum links

  • Developments in knowledge of anatomy
  • The impact of religion on medicine
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    Body - ritual and death

    Educational objective

    This is a starter activity that will serve as a springboard for further investigation into how attempts to preserve the dead gave us our first understandings of human anatomy.

    Classroom activity - preserving the dead (apple)

    Many cultures, especially in ancient times, believed that the body should be preserved intact in preparation for the afterlife. This belief manifested itself in elaborate preservation techniques such as mummification, which might have taken up to 70 days to achieve.

    Salt, one of the oldest preservatives known to humanity, was generally used only for preserving food - the amount required to preserve a body would have been prohibitively expensive until relatively recently.

    Salt works as a preservative because it gradually removes water from foodstuffs. Bacteria tend to thrive in damp conditions, but salt, depending on the amount used, effectively halts the spread of bacteria by drying out food and leaving no place for bacteria to multiply.

    Using salt, ask your students to preserve an apple. They should first cut the apple into quarters and preserve three of the quarters in individual plastic cups, using increasing amounts of salt. They should save one quarter to use as a control sample in its own cup, keeping it well away from the salt. A couple of days later students should look at the apple and discuss the effects of the salt. Please note that the control quarter may become mouldy very quickly and will need to be disposed of.

    Use this exercise to discuss why some cultures see it as important to preserve the bodies of the dead and how different cultures treat dead bodies.

    Extension activities

    Students could research and explore other ways in which bodies have been preserved - sometimes accidentally.

    Curriculum links

  • The influence of science and technology on medicine
  • Ancient Egypt and anatomy
  • Developments in knowledge of anatomy