They are giants of medicine, pioneers of the care that women receive during childbirth and were the founding fathers of obstetrics. The names of William Hunter and William Smellie still inspire respect among today's doctors, more than 250 years since they made their contributions to healthcare. Such were the duo's reputations as outstanding physicians that the clienteles of their private practices included the rich and famous of mid-18th-century London.
But were they also serial killers? New research published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine (JRSM) claims that they were. A detailed historical study accuses the doctors of soliciting the killing of dozens of women, many in the latter stages of pregnancy, to dissect their corpses. [Guardian]
This story has all the makings of an anti-science urban legend. Regardless of the quality of the underlying research, this story is going to get embellished in the retelling and used to bash scientific medicine.
The allegations are already being mentioned in the same breath as documented atrocities like the Tuskegee syphilis study, and Dr. Joseph Mengele's infamous concentration camp experiments.
I checked out Don C. Shelton's original paper. It's a very good read. Shelton raises credible suspicions about where these two doctors got their anatomical specimens. He, shamelessly overstates his case, however. Shelton flatly asserts that Hunter and Smellie were "responsible" for the murders of more women than Jack the Ripper.
The subjects of the anatomy books were women who died in childbirth, or during their final month of pregnancy. Shelton's argument is that there simply weren't enough heavily pregnant and birthing women dying of natural causes in mid-18th-century London to account for all the thirty-plus cadavers that Smellie and Hunter examined to write their respective anatomical classics.
Based on a review of their atlases, Shelton says that the two anatomists came up with a total of 20 cadavers between 1750 and 1754; and that Hunter somehow located another dozen between 1766 and 1774. That works out to four or five such bodies a year for the first stretch and fewer than two a year for the second period.
Shelton concludes that the doctors must have had these women murdered-to-order, a practice known as burking. The term burking is an allusion to the murderers Burke and Hare who smothered their victims in Edinburgh between 1837 and 1838 and delivered them to Dr. Robert Knox, a private anatomy lecturer.
Shelton acknowledges that there is no research on burking in the mid-18th century. He doesn't cite any documented cases of burking during that era.
There is no question anatomists of Smellie and Hunter's day got their cadavers from grave robbers. That's how it was done in those dark and superstitious days.
Shelton's case boils down to two rather plausible, but non-dispositive claims: i) very few women died in their 9th month of pregnancy or during childbirth to begin with, and, ii) it's unlikely that ordinary grave robbers would have been able to zero in on these rare cases.
Grave robbers tended to exhume corpses at random, Shelton explains. Or else they targeted the unclaimed bodies of people who died in poorhouses. But he notes that most of those who died in poorhouses were old and sick, not otherwise healthy pregnant women.
Death rates for infectious disease were very high in mid-18th-century London, but Shelton claims that pregnant women would have accounted for small percentage of the death toll. As he points out, they're a subset of the general population and a relatively young and healthy one at that.
Shelton cites statistics to show that the childbed death rate in the mid-18th-century was less than 2%. Based on the birth and death rates and the population of London at the time, he estimates that there would have been about 200 childbed deaths per year.
He argues that women who died in their 9th month of pregnancy would have been rarer still. Shelton suggests that very pregnant cadavers would have been extremely rare because a significant percentage women who suffered lethal illnesses or accidents in their 9th month would have miscarried before they died.
But even at their most productive, the two doctors were only seeing about five of their target subjects a year, on average. Five out of 200 doesn't seem that incredible.
The author also maintains that it would have been very difficult for grave robbers to find these rare specimens: Death notices were rarely published in those days and corpses usually went directly from home to the graveyard without a detour through a funeral home or some other central location that thieves could monitor.
Personally, if I were an 18th-Century anatomist who needed a steady supply of "special" cadavers, I'd start bribing vicars. If you pay for the new church roof, I'm sure it's amazing what you can find out about who's buried where.
So, the paper gives us good reason to doubt that Smellie and Hunter got all their cadavers through the standard grave-robbing channels. But that's hardly proof that the two men commissioned mass murder for hire.
Smellie and Hunter were famous obstetricians. They worked with pregnant and birthing women. In an era where most childbirth was handled at home, they probably served a disproportionately sick patient population.
Let's not forget that primitive obstetrics was really dangerous--no doubt in part because because science was still sketchy on pregnant female anatomy. If anyone was well-situated to tip off grave robbers about dead pregnant women, or take liberties with their corpses, it would have been 18th-century obstetricians.
As the author points out, Smellie and Hunter were rich and well-connected men. He implies that they could have gotten away with murder. On the other hand, if they could have gotten away with murder, they presumably had enough privilege to get what they wanted by less drastic, if socially unacceptable means.
Shelton claims the following passage, written in 1818, is a smoking gun. The author was describing a plate in Smellie's atlas that features twins:
“Dr MacKenzie being then an assistant to the late Dr Smellie, the procuring and dissecting this woman without Dr Smellie’s knowledge, was the cause of a separation between them, for the leading steps to such a discovery could not be kept a secret."
Smellie died in 1763 and 55 years later, some guy claimed that an associate of Smellie's obtained the corpse by unspecified (but presumably sketchy) means without Smellie's knowledge. This is supposed to be a smoking gun? Really?
Shelton gives us no reason to assume that Smellie and Hunter were monsters. Why immediately jump to the conclusion that they were murderers? There have been killers in the name of science and medicine, but they've always been a tiny minority among scientists and for that matter, a very small subset of murderers. Shelton's wild allegation seems absurd unless you buy into some nasty stereotypes about doctors and scientists.
He makes no attempt to rule out less brutal schemes by which they might have improved their odds relative to common grave-robbers. Could they have performed unauthorized autopsies on pregnant patients who died of natural causes? Bribed the families of the deceased? Stolen the bodies of their own indigent patients? If a body was returned to the family with an incision in the abdomen, the obstetricians could always claim it was a cesarean section.
Were all their subjects even dead? Presumably they could have learned from examining and treating live women. It's a mundane possibility, but who's to say these guys didn't exaggerate the number of corpses they actually looked at? Academic dishonesty is more common than murder.
Obviously, I'm speculating here, but so is Shelton. He makes probabilistic arguments, so I'll make one too: If same end can be achieved through subterfuge or serial murder, most people will opt for subterfuge. Dead pregnant women are rare, but mass murderers are rarer still. Of course, tall tales of body snatchers, natural and supernatural, are as common as dirt.
Shelton is right to question how these doctors got their cadavers, but he simply does not have enough evidence to conclude that these pioneers of modern obstetrics killed more women than Jack the Ripper. This paper is just going to give the science bashers unearned ammunition.