La Société d’autopsie mutuelle
Groucho Marx’s famous aphorism is well-known and contains a scintilla of truth. Would you really want to belong to an institution that is full of people like you? This set me thinking. There must be many clubs and societies throughout history that pandered to the collective eccentricities of its membership. After some rudimentary research, to my delight, I found that there were and in this occasional series I will shine the spotlight on some of the more entertaining.
First up is this society, formed on 19th October 1876 by some members of the Society of Anthropology of Paris.
The 19th century saw a phenomenal burst of interest in the human anatomy and how the body worked, fuelling many significant medical discoveries and advancements in surgical techniques, from which we benefit today. The problem was, of course, that before the discovery of X-rays and MRI scanners the only way of advancing anatomical knowledge was through the dissection of cadavers. The subject of dissections were either poor souls whose bodies had been lifted from what their relatives had hoped to have been their final resting place by body snatchers (or resurrectionists, as they were euphemistically known) or convicted criminals who had been despatched to their maker on the end of a noose.
This posed two problems for the thinking man. Firstly, little was known about the life, background and personality of any of the deceased. Secondly, those of a eugenic disposition were concerned that the cadavers of the lower orders and criminal classes were unlikely to shed any light on the better members of society.
The members of the Society believed that the key to a person’s personality, character and abilities was the size and shape of their brain. To prove the theory and to promote this atheistic view of the soul, they needed the brains of people whose traits and history they knew. The obvious answer was to dissect each other’s brains, obviously when they had died. The Society attracted an initial membership of 20, all of whom pledged to dissect each other’s brains for the advancement of science. Members were required to write an essay detailing the key aspects of their life, their personality, character and preferences so that these characteristics could be correlated with the shape and size of their brain.
The Society, astonishingly, attracted over 100 members in its first few years of existence and continued to attract members up until the First World War and performed its final autopsies just before the outbreak of the Second World War.
Many of the results of these detailed encephalic autopsies were published in medical and scientific journals and plaster casts of the brains of deceased members were displayed at many of the world trade fairs that were popular at the turn of the twentieth century.
Alas, though, after thirty years of dissecting members’ brains, the Society was not able to prove conclusively its radical theories nor to promote general acceptance of atheism and the end was nigh. As is often the way, petty disagreements were magnified into major disputes. One person took exception to the less than flattering analysis of his father’s brain and character traits and another started to flirt with religion, causing a schism in the ranks. And this rather enterprising Society was no more, its motives and highlights to be picked over and dissected by future historians.
On the positive side it prototyped a couple of things which are part of our daily life, a living will – which is what the pledge to have their body delivered to the Society upon death was – and organ donation. Until the next time!