YORKSHIRE TERRIER

The telephone number of Her Majesty’s Inspector of Anatomy is 0171-972 4342.

It’s worth keeping a note of now you know it because you can’t get it from directory inquiries - or at least I couldn’t.

‘I’m sorry, caller. There is no such person listed.’

‘Well, could you give me the number of the Royal College of Surgeons then?’

Astonishingly, no-one at the college knew the number. ‘Try Bart’s, ’ they said.

The seventh person I spoke to at Bart’s didn’t know the inspector’s number but did have a colleague who might.

Unfortunately, when I rang Her Majesty’s Inspector, a recording advised me to ‘leave a message after the tone’, call the Department of Health press office or, ‘in an emergency’, ring Mrs X.

Quite what kind of emergency might arise over a dead body escaped me.

Frustrated, I took my enquiry to the DoH.

You may be wondering why I was running up my phone bill trying to find an almost-impossible-to contact public office.

My telephone odyssey began when my interest was aroused by recent ‘admissions’ arising from the Bristol Royal Infirmary inquiry.

Up to 11,000 hearts and other organs of children who died from congenital defects have been removed at autopsy, without parental consent, and are being kept in glass jars in several of Britain’s teaching hospitals.

The collections have reportedly been built up over 30 years.

I can’t say I’m surprised. Or, more accurately, I’m only surprised at how small the figure is. One can only assume that the total figure for bottled body parts, including those belonging to adults, must be many times bigger.

Of course, the popular press expressed shock and surprise over these revelations. But the situation can hardly surprise those with any knowledge of the medical profession.

Doctors are, of necessity, trained to be indifferent to the dead. But such indifference can easily become callousness.

It is, for example, an open secret that doctors’ standard practice at the end of a postmortem is simply to chuck all the body’s organs, including the brain, into the abdominal cavity any old how and stitch it back up.

Presumably, few mourners at a funeral would be happy to know that the organs of the dear deceased might not be quite as conventionally positioned as they had vaguely supposed.

The medical profession’s general disregard for dead people - let alone for the feelings of the living - has a long history.

Take the findings of a parliamentary select committee inquiry in 1828, which echo the current revelations.

Parliament was looking at the issue of body snatching. The facts which emerged were disturbing: in London alone up to 200 people earned their living stealing bodies.

Those body snatchers, or ‘resurrectionists’, removed about 1,000 corpses a year from newly dug graves and sold them for between two and 14 guineas each (the bodies of dead children were pr iced by the inch).

Such wickedness could not exist without a ready market, and that market was the medical profession.

It had an insatiable appetite for corpses to dissect for research and training. Indeed, so high was the demand that ‘invisible imports’ were smuggled in from France and Ireland.

Although the medical profession had long called for some legal way of getting hold of corpses, it was public opinion, not the doctors, which eventually succeeded in getting the law changed.

Riots in Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Sheffield, Manchester, Cambridge and London led in due course to the Anatomy Act of 1832.

This withdrew judges’ right to sentence condemned criminals to be publicly dissected following execution.

This had been the fate - with some poetic justice - of William Burke, of ‘Burke and Hare’ fame, three years earlier.

On the whole, the Anatomy Act seemed to please everyone. Doctors could now get bodies from legal sources - 600 a year for the first few years - either those who had left their bodies to science or unclaimed corpses from hospitals and workhouses.

The public could feel content in the knowledge that the remains of their loved ones could lie peacefully in their graves.

But the real moral issue arising from the Anatomy Act concerns the fate of those ‘unclaimed bodies’.

Both the original act, and the current act of 1984, allow doctors to send an unclaimed corpse for dissect ion provided they have no reason to believe the deceased would have objected - having when alive done so either in writing or verbally in front of two witnesses.

My quest was to find out just how many bodies of ‘involuntary donors’ are disposed of this way each year by the NHS.

Did HM Inspector of Anatomy know? Not according to the DoH press office. All it could say for certain was that in 1997-98, 759 bodies had been sent for dissection.

Back in 1941, 97 per cent of bodies used for anatomy came from institutions, and only 3 per cent from people who had expressly left their bodies to science.

If those statistics remain the same today, the bodies of 700 people a year may be being used for anatomical dissection without their prior consent.

Is this a scandal? I don’t know.

There will always be good ethical arguments for such practices, but I am uneasy.

Meanwhile, to avoid all doubt or ambiguity, and in accordance with the terms of the Anatomy Act, please note that I do not give my consent to being ‘anatomised’ following my own eventual demise.

Steve Ainsworth is a former primary care manager.